Like dogged ghosts from a past that President Bush would rather forget, questions from the Iran-Contra scandal have reappeared in the presidential campaign, reviving once more the issue of Bush's truthfulness about his actions as Ronald Reagan's vice president.
Ever since the scandal erupted almost six years ago, Bush has maintained he was unaware that Reagan was secretly trading weapons to Iran, and that Bush did not realize then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz and then-Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger bitterly opposed the deal.
But the testimony of other high officials has contradicted the key points of Bush's account.
Now Democratic candidate Bill Clinton is seeking to focus public attention on the issue, arguing that more attention should be paid to what he calls Bush's deliberate misrepresentations of his role. "It seems to be that he is not telling the truth about this," Clinton spokesman George Stephanopoulos said Thursday. "I think George Bush has a big credibility problem."
The Clinton attacks are designed not only to create immediate problems for Bush but, indirectly, to help Clinton overcome his own credibility problems, which polls show remain serious. By suggesting that almost all politicians have credibility problems at some time or other, Clinton may persuade undecided voters that questions about his own candor on such things as his draft record should not disqualify him for the presidency.
If voters decide that neither candidate has a spotless record, says Republican pollster Vince Breglio, they are more likely to base their choice on other issues--most notably, the economy.
Seeking to blunt the Democratic attack, Bush insists that the question is closed. "This seems to me to be just a late smoke screen out of that dead old saw," the President said earlier this week. "I have nothing to explain. I've given every bit of evidence I have to these thousands of investigators. And nobody has suggested that I've done anything wrong at all."
In fact, Democrats and others have long suggested that Bush may have, at the least, made implausible claims of ignorance about the possibly illegal affair.
And Democratic strategists say mournfully that many voters have forgotten what the convoluted, six-year-old scandal was about. (It centered on a secret sale of missiles to Iran intended to win the release of American hostages held in Lebanon; profits from the sale were secretly diverted to support U.S.-backed rebels in Nicaragua known as Contras. Both parts of the deal may have been illegal.)
The crux of the issue of Bush's role is whether he has told the truth about what he knew about the sales to Iran when he was in a position, as vice president, to try to stop them.
Ever since the scandal erupted, Bush has acknowledged that he supported the arms sales at the time. But he has insisted that he did not know that Shultz and Weinberger were bitterly opposed to the deal; if he had known that, he said, he might have opposed the sales, too.
But the testimony of other high officials and the minutes of meetings Bush attended call Bush's assertions into question.
The issue arose again last month, when Walsh released a 1987 State Department memorandum that recorded Weinberger's belief that Bush indeed knew about his objections to the deal.
The author of the memorandum, former State Department official M. Charles Hill, told The Times that he was confident of its accuracy--his first public comment on the issue.
The memorandum recounted a telephone call from Weinberger to Shultz in which the defense secretary reacted in apparent anger to statements Bush made in an interview with the Washington Post.
In the interview, Bush explained his position on the decision to sell missiles to Iran by saying: "If I'd have sat there and heard George Shultz and Cap (Weinberger) express it strongly, maybe I would have had a stronger view. But when you don't know something, it's hard to react. . . . We were not in the loop."
The next day, Weinberger telephoned Shultz, according to the memorandum made at the time by Hill, Shultz's executive assistant.
"VP (Bush) in papers yest(erday) (said) he not exposed to Cap or my arguments on Iran arms," says the memorandum, apparently dictated by Shultz.
"Cap called me (and said) that's terrible. He was on the other side. It's on the record. Why did he say that," the memorandum reads.
Hill, who frequently recorded Shultz's dictated minutes of meetings and telephone conversations, said Wednesday that he was "sure" that the memo is an accurate record of what Shultz said.
Associates of Shultz and Weinberger noted that neither former Cabinet officer has challenged the accuracy of Hill's memo or stepped forward to defend Bush.
Asked why Shultz and Weinberger have been silent, Bush deputy campaign manager Mary Matalin said: "You'll have to ask them."
Even Brent Scowcroft, Bush's own national security adviser, has been circumspect on the issue of Bush's veracity. Asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" if he believed Bush's contention that he did not know where Shultz and Weinberger stood, Scowcroft said: "I think it's quite possible that it's a truthful statement"--a less than ringing endorsement.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), said the newly discovered State Department memo "raises serious questions about the accuracy and completeness of Mr. Bush's statements . . . I hope that there's some way that this can be looked into."
The controversy over the newly released memo echoed earlier contradictions between Bush's account and those of other officials.
According to White House records and the testimony of Cabinet members before Congress, Bush attended at least two critical meetings where the secret arms sales were debated--and where Shultz and Weinberger expressed their objections bluntly.
The accusations against Bush have never become a serious problem for him, in part because his claim not to remember is difficult to disprove and in part because he--unlike other figures in the Iran-Contra drama--has never been seriously examined by investigators armed with the power to compel testimony.
A congressional committee investigated the scandal during most of 1987, but it never focused on Bush--both because the panel operated under a short deadline and because Democratic members feared going after the vice president would make them appear too partisan.
"There still remain many unanswered questions," acknowledged Mitchell, a member of the Senate investigating committee. "Our time frame . . . was clearly inadequate."
Independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh has spent more than five years investigating the scandal, and has brought charges against 14 defendants, but he did not focus on Bush because he was concentrating on acts that could lead to criminal prosecution. The main charges against Bush are not of criminal misconduct, but of distorting the truth--a political failing, perhaps, but not a criminal offense.
Mitchell said the scandal never aroused much public ire because the Reagan Administration and its supporters in Congress "skillfully turned it into a debate on policy as opposed to a debate on illegal action; for many Americans it appeared to be merely a continuation of a public debate about a controversial policy."
The honesty issue affects the two presidential candidates unequally. A Los Angeles Times Poll last month found that 66% of voters believe Bush "has the honesty and integrity to be President," while 56% were convinced that Clinton did. And Clinton may face an uphill battle in shaking voters' confidence in the President; only 8% said they were undecided about Bush's honesty, compared with 26% who were still uncertain about Clinton's.