Eight months ago, the Los Angeles Times published the first in a continuing series of articles charging that the Bush Administration had secretly funneled several billion dollars worth of loan guarantees and military technology to Saddam Hussein from 1986 to 1990. Directly and indirectly, the stories said, this money and materiel gave Hussein the very weapons he later used against American and allied forces in the Persian Gulf War.
The Times stories--many based on previously secret papers prepared by the Bush Administration--also alleged that the Administration tried to cover up what it had done by altering documents it supplied to Congress and by attempting to obstruct official investigations of aid to Iraq.
William Safire wrote in a New York Times column, many other news organizations--print and broadcast--have also pursued it. But even though 1992 is an election year and President Bush has proven vulnerable on other grounds, Iraqgate has had negligible impact on the national political scene.
Shortly after The Times stories began running, Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), chairman of the House Banking Committee, cited them in calling for congressional hearings on Iraqgate. Gonzalez, who had been investigating the role in Iraqgate of the Atlanta branch of the Italian government-owned Banca Nazionale del Lavoro for more than a year, also read dozens of classified documents on Iraqgate into the Congressional Record.
But the House was often near-empty when Gonzalez was reading, and Gonzalez was dismissed by many as "an amiable blowhard, a colorful character, and not as a serious exposer of wrongdoing, which is what he is," Safire says.
There was no public outcry over Iraqgate similar to that which triggered the Watergate and Iran-Contra investigations. When U.S. Atty. Gen. William P. Barr announced in August that he would not appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether any laws were broken, the reaction, especially outside Washington, was barely perceptible. Only in recent weeks has the story spurred appreciable political activity, and even now, it does not seem to have had substantial impact on the general public.
The myriad answers to that question make for an intriguing and revealing case study of both the journalistic and political processes.
In a sense, the muted public reaction to Iraqgate has its roots in the so-called Teflon presidency of Ronald Reagan.
Under President Reagan, the rich got richer while the poor got poorer; the national debt tripled; the stock market crashed; the exploding AIDS epidemic was long neglected, and deregulation policies were enacted that helped trigger the savings and loan crisis. At the same time, there were many stories about Reagan being so "laid-back," such a hands-off manager, that he remained "disengaged" from even the most significant policy decisions of his eight-year presidency--including the arms-for-hostages deal that became known as the Iran-Contra scandal.
But those stories had little real impact on Reagan's standing with voters. He remained extraordinarily popular throughout most of his two terms, and there is little doubt that if the Constitution had permitted him to run for a third term, he would have been easily reelected.
Despite many stories on Reagan's shortcomings, the American public clearly felt that after seeing Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter all driven from the Oval Office, they "just didn't want to see the ritual destruction and inevitable failure of another presidency, especially a President who seemed to be such an amiable and well-intentioned fellow" as Reagan, in the words of Howell Raines, Washington editor of the New York Times.
President Bush doesn't arouse the same feelings of intense affection in the electorate as his predecessor, but he does benefit from the same scandal-weary attitude in the body politic, the same public reluctance to wallow in yet another tale of low deeds in high places.
Richard Smith, editor-in-chief of Newsweek, says the "post-Watergate mood of . . . official Washington" is that the special prosecutor in the Iran-Contra scandal "was not turning up bombshell revelations and I suspect that the attitude (on Iraqgate) was: 'Do we want to go through this all over again?' "
"There's a weariness in Washington about special prosecutors and investigations in general," Smith says.
In addition, Bush's dismal drift in the public opinion polls the last few months notwithstanding, it's worth remembering that in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, his job approval rating was 89%--more than 20 points higher than President Reagan ever registered.
Thus, early Los Angeles Times stories on Iraqgate did not meet what Safire calls "the gas-filled room requirement."
"If you strike a match in a room that is not filled with gas," he says, you don't get an explosion; "all you get is one candlepower worth of publicity." On "Iraqgate," he says, the Los Angeles Times stories were "excellent . . . (but) the room was not filled with gas, although some of us were doing our best to pump it in from the very beginning."
There was no gas in the room because Bush was still popular. More specifically, when the early Iraqgate stories broke, most Americans still felt euphoric about the quick allied victory in the 100-hour Gulf War. Just as they had not wanted their warm feelings for Reagan tainted by any acknowledgment of his shortcomings, so they were in no mood to have that victory tainted by charges that the same people who won the war (the Bush Administration) had actually--foolishly? illegally?--made the war inevitable.
Iraqgate--A Case Study of a Big Story With Little Impact
Despite hundreds of news reports, no public outrage has erupted over secret U.S. aid to Iraq.
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