This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
It was a lovely, crisp autumn morning in the nation’s capital in November 1987, and I was strolling through a well-tended park on Capitol Hill and feeling quite privileged. I had only been in the city for ten months, as a correspondent for this magazine, and I was about to be one of the few people in town to obtain a copy of the hottest document produced by Washington in years: the final report of the House and Senate committees investigating the Iran/Contra affair. This scandal was a doozy: President Ronald Reagan had secretly (and arguably illegally) sold weapons to the terrorist-supporting regime of Iran in order to free American hostages, and his crew had used the ill-gotten proceeds to secretly (and arguably illegally) finance the not-so-covert guerrilla army attempting to overthrow the socialist government of Nicaragua.
This whole nutty—and Constitution-defying—episode had been much in the news for the past year, hobbling the Reagan administration and putting government officials at risk of criminal prosecution. Covering the scandal had been a journalistic baptism for me. When I arrived in Washington at the start of that year, the great journalist I.F. Stone—who decades earlier had been my predecessor as Washington correspondent for The Nation—offered me a valuable piece of advice: stay to the end of any congressional hearing you attend and read everything. That lesson served me well as I reported on this absurd and troubling affair and learned how to cover Washington.
Over several months, the Iran/Contra joint committees had held long hearings in the ornate hearing room of the Russell Senate Office Building—which had previously been the site of hearings on Watergate and on the sinking of the Titanic—and scores of reporters had crowded into this grand room to chronicle the historic sessions. (In young-journo heaven, I found myself seated next to the eccentrically erudite Murray Kempton and the passionately perceptive Lars-Erik Nelson.) Most of the journalists representing the established media outlets focused on the same slice of the tale: What did the president (and his top men) know about the sordid deals with Tehran and the Contras? This was an important question, but it was not the only one.
The Iran/Contra probe had opened the lid on a large trunk of assorted skulduggeries, including probable CIA violations of the congressional ban on assistance to the Contras and, even more outrageous, CIA support of the Contras involved in drug trafficking. Yet much of the establishment media covered the scandal in the same way they chronicled politics: Who’s up, who’s down? The testimony of Lieut. Col. Oliver North, a National Security Council official, was reported like a boxing match: Who got in the best shots?