If you want to solve the perplexing mystery of modern-day America -- and understand what went so terribly wrong -- an important place to look for clues would be the Iran-Contra scandal, which began a quarter century ago, on Nov. 25, 1986.
The scandal's failure to achieve meaningful accountability for high-level lawbreakers can be seen as a key turning point in modern American history. In effect, it was the moment that the United States veered firmly back onto a path toward Empire after a brief side trip toward again trying to be a functioning Republic.
The U.S. government had been firmly on the imperial path since the end of World War II -- with the establishment of U.S. military bases around the globe, the use of the CIA to remove troublesome leaders, and waging foreign wars in faraway places like Korea and Vietnam.
In the 1970s, however, the defeat in the Vietnam War presented the United States an opportunity to confront this lengthy national detour from Republic to Empire, and to change direction back toward something closer to what the Founders had in mind.
During the 1970s, the U.S. press corps and Congress undertook serious investigations of the secret history of the post-World War II era and exposed crimes both foreign and domestic, from overthrowing democratic governments to lying about the reasons for war to plotting assassinations of foreign leaders to spying on American citizens.
For a brief period, there even was hope that the Empire might be rolled back and the Republic restored. But that hope was soon dashed by the rise of the angry Right in the late 1970s and particularly the emergence of conservative Republican Ronald Reagan as a popular national politician.
Both before and after Reagan's successful run for president in 1980, the former actor was one who discounted the value of unpleasant truth-telling and, indeed, portrayed anyone who spoke critically of past U.S. foreign policies as unpatriotic. He dubbed the Vietnam War a "noble cause."
In 1984, Reagan's U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick famously summed up this attitude, describing citizens who would engage in national self-criticism as those who would "blame America first." As the 1980s wore on, Congress and the press increasingly bent to these ugly pressures.
But the Iran-Contra scandal, which erupted in November 1986, offered the nation one last chance to repudiate the imperial presidency and its contempt for efforts to limit its powers. Essentially, Iran-Contra -- with its arms sales to a terrorist-designated state in Iran and secret funding of the Contra war in Nicaragua -- was a case of Ronald Reagan declaring that U.S. law and the Constitution didn't apply to him.
Thus, Iran-Contra was a moment when the press and Congress could have stepped forward and demanded truth and accountability as they had done in the 1970s around Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal and the Pentagon Papers history of the Vietnam War. Or they could choose to bow down to the notion that the president could do pretty much whatever he wanted.
The Front Lines
As a Washington correspondent for the Associated Press, I found myself on the front lines of that historic moment.
In 1985, I had been the first reporter to describe the secret activities of White House aide Oliver North arranging support for Nicaraguan Contra rebels after Congress had shut down CIA funding. Then, my colleague Brian Barger and I wrote the first story about how some Contra units had turned to cocaine trafficking to raise money, with the Reagan administration turning a blind eye to their crimes.
Our stories came under attack from the White House, from the fast-growing conservative news media and -- perhaps most damaging -- from mainstream outlets like The New York Times. By summer 1986, our AP editors had begun to lose faith in us -- and Barger resigned after getting stuck indefinitely on the overnight editing shift, which took him away from our investigation.
Congress also was caving in under intense pressure from the White House and its allies. Having denied the stories about North's secret network, Reagan and his team then bullied the Democratic-controlled House into restoring military support for the Contras.
It looked as if Reagan's cover-up of his secret Contra war and its criminal spin-offs would succeed. However, two unlikely events in fall 1986 intervened to change the short-term course of history.