Patently absurd reasoning in someone's argument can often tell you about the strength of the underlying facts. If an argument is deceptive on its face, you might suspect the supporting facts are pretty fragile, too.
Such was the situation in late 1992 as America reached an important turning point for whether the people would get to understand their recent history or not. A bipartisan House task force wanted to debunk allegations that Ronald Reagan's campaign in 1980 had sabotaged President Jimmy Carter's negotiations with Iran about freeing 52 Americans, who were taken hostage 30 years ago this week.
That alleged act of treachery, making Carter look weak and inept, set the stage for Reagan's landslide victory on Nov. 4, 1980, exactly one year to the date after the hostages were seized. But the suspicions about this so-called October Surprise case only reached a critical mass in 1991-92 after several years of disclosures about the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scheme.
Despite Republican denials about any secret pre-election 1980 dealings with Iran -- and the anger that the allegations drew from influential neoconservatives in the Washington press corps -- a House task force was created to examine the case, although without much enthusiasm and mostly with an eye toward debunking the suspicions.
By November 1992, especially after President George H.W. Bush lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton, the task force's determination to proclaim the Republican innocence had solidified. The Democrats would be in control of the White House and Congress and were looking forward to bipartisan comity.
However, after Bush's electoral defeat, the floodgates that had long protected the Reagan-Bush team gave way. To the dismay of the task force, evidence of Republican guilt poured in.
The new evidence was so powerful, including multiple corroborations of secret Republican meetings with Iranians behind Carter's back, that task force chief counsel Lawrence Barcella saw no choice but to extend the investigation several months and to rethink the planned debunking.
Barcella told me later that he approached Rep. Lee Hamilton, a centrist Democrat who was chairman of the task force, with a request to give the investigators three more months to evaluate the new evidence.
But Hamilton, who prides himself in coming up with bipartisan answers to questions that otherwise might spur partisan conflict, said no. He ordered Barcella to wrap up the probe and to continue with the planned debunking.
Hamilton's refusal to extend the investigation forced the task force to improvise. It found itself with no choice but to concoct a series of irrational alibis for key Republicans, especially for William Casey, Reagan's campaign chief in 1980 and later Reagan's CIA director.
For the debunking to work, Casey had to be accounted for on crucial days because various witnesses had placed Casey in Europe at secret meetings with Iranian emissaries, including cleric Mehdi Karrubi, then a foreign policy adviser to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
So, the task force constructed one Casey alibi around the fact that Reagan's foreign policy aide Richard Allen had written Casey's home number down in his notes on a specific day. Even though Allen had no record or recollection of reaching Casey that day, the task force cited the writing down of Casey's home number as proof that Casey was at home.
For another key day, Oct. 19, 1980, the task force relied on the unsupported memory of Casey's nephew Larry Casey, who claimed that his late father had called his brother, Bill Casey, that day and found him at work at the Reagan-Bush campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.
Though Larry Casey had no corroboration for that memory, the task force cited it as "credible" and thus dismissed other evidence placing Casey in Paris at a meeting with Karrubi that day. The task force stuck to its conclusion even though I had notified the task force that Larry Casey had given me, in a PBS Frontline interview in 1991, an entirely different story for the same day.
Larry Casey insisted to me that he vividly remembered his parents having dinner with Bill Casey at the Jockey Club in Washington on Oct. 19, 1980. "It was very clear in my mind even though it was 11 years ago," Larry Casey said.