PERSPECTIVE ON THE IRAN-CONTRA AFFAIR : The American Way of Scandal Fixes Nothing : We must end the antagonism between Congress and the President that fosters errant behavior.

<i> Robert C. McFarlane, President Reagan's national security adviser from 1983 to 1986, pleaded guilty to misleading Congress during the Iran-Contra affair and was fined $20,000. He is chairman of McFarlane Associates, Inc., an international business firm in Washington. </i>

Taxpayers no doubt hope that after a government scandal has been investigated and “steps” have been taken, the system will somehow work better. In the case of the Iran-Contra scandal, that hasn’t happened. Indeed, there is a strong basis for believing that none of the so-called corrective organisms of the system have worked, and that the relationship of comity, so essential to effective functioning of our political system, has been further eroded.

Think about it: As matters stand, the central issue in this episode--how the shared responsibilities for the conduct of foreign policy ought to be divided between the presidency and the Congress--has not been seriously joined, at least not by the presidency; the central decision-maker of the scandal--Ronald Reagan--has not been held to account; and the institution established to deter, or to police, wrongdoing--the independent counsel--will likely end up discredited. Instead of things getting better in the catharsis of scandal, they have gotten worse.

Why? Some say that in an age when access to the media means more than anything else to a political figure, and when access to a scandal means more than almost anything else to the media, looking for scandal has become an end in itself--forget determining the ostensible cause and seeking corrective measures.

My point is not that we should put a moratorium on public officials’ accountability. We should, however, recognize that there are costs to the nurturing of a climate in which public officials are held to extraordinary standards in proceedings where good faith is missing on both sides because both sides are protecting selfish interests. Not the least of these costs is that good people begin to stay away from government, and those already within become less creative and more risk-averse, and less inclined to cooperate when something goes wrong. Obviously, neither effect is in the national interest.


Some may say that, as one who has committed some pretty gross errors, I am the last one who ought to be making these points. But under the principle that even fools occasionally have useful things to say, let me go on.

Much of what has made American democracy work is trust and mutual respect among political adversaries. However, if that relationship, that comity, that glue that once bound Vandenberg, George, Rayburn, Russell and Stennis with Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon, is allowed to dry up, we will all suffer from government without initiative and without courage.

We must somehow restore a sense of balance about which scandals truly warrant huge investment of our energies. And when we find one that fills the bill, we must take it seriously, treating it as a failing of our political system that requires a political solution, but for God’s sake remembering that the goal of the investigation is to strengthen the system by rekindling mutual trust and respect. It is fair to say that a rush to criminalize political disagreements cannot but have the opposite effect.

What do I mean by balance? Example: Twenty years ago, White House officials secretly planned the bombing of a sovereign country, killing thousands of innocent civilians. They not only withheld information about it from Congress; they also countenanced the falsification of records to cover up what they had done. These are serious breaches of the rules, yet when they were exposed, no one was charged with crimes. Nothing approaching this scale of deception occurred in the Iran-Contra affair, yet a dozen subordinate officials have been charged with various crimes, with more to come. It is interesting to note that most of their legal vulnerabilities came not from their actions in this matter but from having run afoul of investigators. Something is out of balance.


It may be argued that even though the perpetrators of the bombing of Cambodia went unpunished, their very discovery sowed the seeds of mistrust that led to more severe scrutiny of the Iran-Contra affair. Probably so. The question is, are we better off for it? Shouldn’t we be focusing on restoring respect for the rules of political discourse between the presidency and Congress?

What are these rules of comity? The first one is that you never lie. The second is that you engage in political argument in good faith. The third is that after votes are taken, and one side wins and the other loses, the loser will be bound to uphold the law as it was defined in the good-faith negotiations leading up to the vote. The fourth is that if you follow Nos. 1, 2 and 3, you will be given a chance for your position to be proven right (or wrong).

And there are corollaries, one of them being that each side of a policy argument accepts certain political exigencies of the other. For example, a committee chairman, who carries the responsibility of representing his colleagues’ values, may be getting pressure to hold hearings on some element of policy or suspected irregularity in the performance of executive-branch officials. Historically, in these circumstances a chairman would commence by sending a letter that asked pointed questions of the responsible Cabinet officer. He would expect--and occasionally even negotiate the terms of--an incomplete response. But because both sides understand that the letter is designed to meet political exigencies, both also understand the obligation to provide a full explanation in person, either in closed session or in private meetings, right away. If in those sessions the chairman or the ranking minority member believes that the other side is being not entirely forthcoming, he will say so, and that party is bound to change course.

In the Iran-Contra episode, surely the rules of comity to which I refer were broken, most importantly in that lies were told. Principal figures admitted that on national television. And there were other breaches of the rules. Perhaps the next most serious was the refusal by President Reagan to engage in the kind of contentious but civil discourse, the good-faith give-and-take, that has typified the relationship of comity between Congress and the presidency throughout most of our history. It is both wrong and stupid for the White House to ignore Congress. In my judgment, it was this breech of comity, this demonstrated lack of respect by President Reagan for members of the Senate and the House, that led the latter to bring down the Goetterdaemmerung.


Politics practiced responsibly is hard work. Executive-branch policy officials must engage in sustained dialogue with Senators and members of the House. It isn’t because of their policy expertise, although I learned a lot from Scoop Jackson, John Tower and my father. Not because of what they can tell you about the country, the views beyond Washington. Cabinet officers worth their salt ought to spend at least a third of their time engaged in some dimension of discourse with the legislators and the press.

How do we restore the relationship of trust? First, we must elect competent politicians--statesmen and stateswomen; and we should require of anyone running for President a commitment to engage with Congress. Second, we must reconfirm and fortify the authority of chairmen in both houses to represent their committees in dialogue with the executive branch. It makes no sense for a freshmen gadfly playing to the galleries back home to undermine his more experienced committee chairman. Finally, journalists could spend time usefully recalling that their role is to seek truth, nothing more or less.

As for the criminal justice system, it ought to be engaged only when politicians acknowledge that they simply cannot do business with one another anymore--and that they don’t care if they make matters worse.