As the Iran-contra hearings fade off into the sunset, they leave behind a troubling portrait of a president who was strangely victimized both by his best and worst impulses.
Reagan's best impulses are to help fellow Americans, in this case hostages still held captive in Lebanon. The hostages were, in the words of former White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan, the human "bait" that kept the Iran initiative going long after a more hard-edged and thoughtful president would have realized he was being hoodwinked.
Reagan's response was not surprising to those who have watched him at close quarters. He shrinks from the unpleasant consequences of his policies, as David Stockman lamented in his memoir about the failure of the "Reagan revolution."
Speaking of the president's refusal to accept the Draconian economic scheme Stockman had prepared for him, the former budget director wrote, "He always went for hard-luck stories. He sees the plight of real people before anything else. Despite his right-wing image, his ideology and philosophy always take a back seat when he learns that some individual human being might be hurt."
Understandably, Reagan was even more vulnerable to "the plight of real people" when American lives were at stake. On June 28, 1985, while the crew and passengers of a hijacked TWA airliner were being held captive in Beirut, the president made a speech in Chicago Heights, Ill., in which he said, "I only know that none of us, any country, can afford to pay off terrorists for the crimes that they are committing because that will only lead to more crimes."
But after making this declaration of policy, the president spent 33 minutes with distraught families of the hostages, and aides remember that he was shaken by the conversation. "We're doing everything we can to secure the safe and early return of those being held," Reagan told the families. "We're constantly looking for ways to do more."
After release of the TWA hostages, Reagan made it a point to meet with family members of other hostages, both in the White House and on campaign trips throughout the country. Invariably, their appeals seemed to make a deep personal impact on the president, who often promised "to do more."
Reagan's worst impulses have always been his tendencies to oversimplify and overdelegate. He governs by reducing complex issues to simplicities of lower taxes and anticommunism and relying on others to carry out the policies embodied by the slogans. Blending what has delicately been referred to as Reagan's "management style" with his determination to help the Nicaraguan contras was a combustible mix, even if Lt. Col. Oliver L. North had not been present to light the fire.
And what of the contras, the "freedom fighters" whom Reagan once called the "moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers?" The president believes that isolating the Nicaraguan government and preventing expansion of a Soviet beachhead in the hemisphere is vital to national security. In the judgment of history, he may well turn out to be right.
But Reagan has never faced the human dimension of the conflict he has endorsed in Nicaragua. He often repeats the horror stories, many well-documented, about mistreatment of the Miskito Indians and other Nicaraguans by the Sandinista government. He sees the Nicaraguan war as a simple struggle between good and evil.
Would the president feel as strongly as he does about the virtues of the democratic resistance in Nicaragua if he were also exposed to the victims of the contras? Would his policy views be changed by a meeting with the relatives of the women and children who have been killed by contra raids designed more to terrorize civilians than to accomplish military objectives?
The true believers who thought that diverting Iran arms sales profits to the contras was such a "neat idea" have not been troubled by the human costs of the Nicaraguan war. If President Reagan ever dares to hold a news conference again, it would be good to ask him if his concern for innocent victims extends to Nicaraguan civilians who are killed or captured by the contras.
Reaganism of the Week: Speaking to citizens in Port Washington, Wis., last Monday, the president said, "Well, you know, there's a lot left to do. And to borrow a phrase I heard recently, I reject a potted-plant presidency."