Joe Conason's Journal

The Republican effort to replace FDR's profile on the dime with an image of Ronald Reagan may not garner the dying ex-president the praise they intend.

By Salon Staff

Published December 6, 2003 12:03AM (EST)

More than a dime's worth of difference
In their ceaseless hissy fit over a Showtime movie that almost nobody watched, certain Republicans in Congress are proposing to replace FDR's profile with an image of Ronald Reagan on the dime coin. Whether intended as reparation for an insulting TV docudrama, or as a more sinister attempt to erase all traces of liberalism from the nation's symbols, this idea may backfire nastily on its proponents.

Reagan's admirers complain how unseemly it is to criticize the former president while he is facing death. In that they have a point, whether or not their Limbaughs and Coulters would behave decently (which I doubt) were the circumstances reversed.

But if they pursue this new provocation against the memory of the greatest American president of the past century -- the leader who saved the world from fascism despite opposition from the Nazi-coddling "conservatives" of his day -- they will make a full debate about the dying Reagan's record unavoidable.

Notwithstanding the flattering mythologies that the Gipper claque has cultivated around him, Reagan would not emerge unscathed from a realistic public examination of his record. And that is particularly true today, when presidential responses to terrorism are coming under particular scrutiny.

Six weeks ago, the Marine Corps marked the anniversary of the Marine barracks suicide-bombing in Beirut that killed 241 of their comrades on October 23, 1983. Nobody doubted that terrorists backed by Iran were responsible for that attack, just as the same groups had mounted a similar assault on the U.S. Embassy that cost 63 lives the previous April.

Ronald Reagan did two things in response to those bombings. In March 1984, he pulled American troops out of Lebanon -- "cutting and running," as the Republicans might say (but rarely do). And in August 1985, he authorized the first of several secret arms shipments to Iran -- "knuckling under to terrorists," as the Republicans might say (but never do). Compounding the scandal, the proceeds from the arms sales were then used to aid "contra" rebels in Nicaragua.

Then after this outrageous crime was uncovered by a Lebanese newspaper, Reagan lied to the nation, and authorized a coverup. As the final report of the special prosecutor who investigated the Iran-contra scandal recounts:

"In the Iran initiative, President Reagan chose to proceed in the utmost secrecy, disregarding the administration's public policy prohibiting arms sales to nations supporting terrorism. He also chose to forgo congressional notification under the National Security Act and the Arms Export Control Act ... .

"When the Iran initiative was exposed on November 3, 1986, the president convened a series of meetings with his top national security advisers and permitted the creation of a false account of the Iran arms sales to be disseminated to members of Congress and the American people. These false accounts denied the president's knowledge and authorization of the initial sales from Israeli stocks of U.S.-made TOW and HAWK missiles to Iran in August, September and November of 1985 ... . Previously withheld notes by participants in the November 12 and November 24, 1986, meetings constituted evidence of an effort to cover up the true facts of the president's authorization of the 1985 Iran arms sales."

Rep. Mark Souder, the Indiana Republican who wrote the Reagan dime bill, may not be intellectually prepared for this level of argumentation. Consider how he explains the reason he chose the 10-cent coin: "Reagan was wounded ... by a bullet that had ricocheted and flattened to the size of a dime."

That Clark "blackout"
Wesley Clark apparently went along with the State Department's blackout of his upcoming testimony against Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague. The Dec. 3 Knight-Ridder story to which I linked yesterday said that he and his campaign had no comment, but at some point that must have changed. The same day's Chicago Tribune carried a different version by the same reporter -- Trib foreign affairs correspondent Tom Hundley -- which included the following: "UN prosecutors expressed disappointment with the administration's terms, but Clark's campaign said he accepted them. 'Because there were serious national security and intelligence issues, it was agreed with the State Department that the testimony should be closed,' said campaign spokeswoman Mary Jacoby."

Clark's assent doesn't improve this bad decision, which undermines confidence in international due process. Nor does his agreement change what were probably the underlying motives of the White House. It only suggests that if the retired general becomes president, he might well make the same mistake.
[4 p.m. PST, December 5, 2003]

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