This became his version of the truth, Cannon said, and the one that Reagan believed forever. A Los Angeles Times poll found, however, that only 14% of those who watched him on television believed him.
Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III opened an inquiry. So did congressional committees and a bipartisan review board headed by former Sen. John G. Tower, a Republican from Texas. An independent counsel, former federal judge Lawrence Walsh, a Republican, began a criminal investigation.
Meese's investigation discovered the diversion of funds to the Contras. Now the attorney general and other top aides worried that the president might be impeached. McFarlane tried to kill himself. Reagan forced Poindexter to resign. He fired North, then called him "a national hero." The Tower commission said that Regan, as chief of staff, bore "primary responsibility for the chaos that had descended upon the White House." Reagan forced Regan to resign.
Walsh indicted 14 people, mostly lesser players. They included Poindexter, who was convicted of five felony counts of conspiracy, obstruction of Congress and lying to Congress. His conviction was overturned. Walsh charged Weinberger with perjury. But before Weinberger could be tried, he was pardoned by Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, after he was elected president.
Ten others were convicted. Walsh found that Reagan had "participated or acquiesced in covering up the scandal."
Had he authorized sending money from Iran to the contras? Walsh could not find out.
Reagan consistently denied it.
The answer was a mystery and might be forever.
A Thaw in Cold War
In domestic policy, Reagan came under attack for responding too slowly to the growing health threat of AIDS, but he won praise, at least from conservatives, for keeping his pledge to change the Supreme Court.
In 1981, he appointed the first woman, Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderately conservative judge from Arizona. In 1986, he promoted conservative Justice William H. Rehnquist to be chief justice and appointed another conservative, Antonin Scalia.
He nominated Robert H. Bork, the conservative who fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox for Richard Nixon during Watergate. But the nomination was defeated after a battle that injected enduring bitterness into confirmation hearings. Reagan had to settle for Anthony M. Kennedy. While hardly a liberal, Kennedy later would vote against overturning Roe vs. Wade, which upholds the right to abortion.
Nor was Iran-Contra the only trouble abroad. In late 1985, four Palestinians hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro with 400 passengers aboard. The hijackers surrendered in Egypt, but not before killing Leon Klinghoffer, 69, a New Yorker confined to a wheelchair. He was singled out because he was Jewish.
When an Egyptian plane tried to fly the hijackers home, U.S. Navy fighters forced it to land in Sicily, where they were arrested. The interception gave the administration a boost.
In April 1986, American planes struck Libya in retaliation for a terrorist attack on a West Berlin nightclub that claimed the life of a U.S. serviceman. Libyan officials said leader Moammar Kadafi was not harmed, but three dozen civilians were killed, including his adopted daughter, and that nearly 100 people, including two of his sons, were injured.
The raid was sharply criticized internationally, but it, too, gained Reagan popularity at home.
His overwhelming triumph, however, was an improvement in superpower relations that presaged the end of the Cold War. Nothing displayed Reagan's capacity for political accommodation more clearly than his dealings with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
During his second term, Reagan carried the burden of his anti-Soviet rhetoric and the stakes he had raised with SDI, his space-based defense program, into four summit meetings with Gorbachev. Reagan doggedly pursued both a reduction in nuclear weapons and better treatment for dissidents and Soviet Jews.
Reagan had three good reasons to reach out to Gorbachev, Cannon says. He had little to show for his first four years in foreign policy. He had built up the military and could bargain from strength. He was freer to deal with the Soviets than any other president because he, of all people, could not be accused of being soft on communism.