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Reagan's Just an Old Softie : Compassion for the Families of Hostages Led Him Astray

November 28, 1986|TOM BETHELL | Tom Bethell, a media fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, writes a monthly column for the American Spectator.

President Reagan, it turned out, just couldn't say no. It was his soft heart that landed him in trouble. The families of the hostages were appearing on television, pleading for presidential attention and compassion. Eventually they were shown into the Oval Office.

One sensed that television's excessive attention to their sorrow was potentially hazardous to politicians, and therefore to us all. In recent weeks, apparently, Reagan raised the issue of the hostages' plight "at half of his daily briefings." This, surely, was disproportionate.

How extraordinary that Ronald Reagan, who campaigned against Jimmy Carter's alleged weakness in handling his Iranian hostage crisis, should have allowed his own judgment about what was best for the country to be clouded by personal sentiment, no doubt exacerbated by getting to know the people involved. To this extent Reagan's Iranian hostage crisis was one of his own making.

For years Reagan has been mercilessly and falsely depicted by his political opponents as uncompassionate, hard-line, bellicose and hawkish. There never was any truth to this characterization. Nancy Reagan was closer to the mark when she said in 1984: "They portray Ronnie as mean and cruel and an uncompassionate man, when they know better. He's the softest touch in the world."

"Reagan's problem," a White House source told me on the day on which national-security adviser John M. Poindexter resigned, "is his inability to say no when confronted with a hard-luck story." Reagan's great political strength has always been his ability to make a good impression on those he meets, even when they disagree with him politically. By the same token, the President suffers from a reciprocal weakness: Those he meets personally can make an inordinate impression on him.

"The President is a man of compassion," White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan said at a recent breakfast meeting with reporters. "He is sitting there. You have Peggy Say (the sister of kidnaped Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson), all of the family saying, 'Please, Mr. President, you've got to do something.' We're branded as being callous. We're not trying to get these hostages out. But when you try to do something to get the hostages out you're swapping human flesh . . . . I ask you, think it through. What would you have us do?"

Better to have done nothing. Say no to Peggy Say--politely but firmly. Better for Reagan to have lived up to his image of toughness, taking it as a compliment rather than as an accusation. Instead, on many issues Reagan's critics succeeded in bullying him into a posture of conciliation. Sometimes, one senses, he gladly adopted such a posture in order to prove to the world that he indeed was a man of sensitivity and compassion. Having vacillated, the President now stands accused of inconsistency. In this "there is no little hypocrisy among Reagan's liberal critics," as New Republic editor Michael Kinsley has written, but Reagan's vacillation has been real nonetheless.

A passion in a private citizen is desirable, but in a senior official it is dangerous. Consider the case of Israel's exchange in May, 1985, of 1,150 Palestinian prisoners for just three Israeli soldiers who were held captive in Lebanon. Among the prisoners released by Israel were numerous convicted Palestinian terrorists, as well as Kozo Okamoto, the only surviving member of the Japanese Red Army squad that attacked Tel Aviv's Lod Airport in 1972, killing 26 bystanders.

It turned out that Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin had agreed to meet with, and then had become personally friendly with, the families of the three Israeli soldiers. Others in the Cabinet apparently knew that Rabin was making these contacts, and they recognized the danger, but they discounted it because they knew, or thought they knew, that Rabin was a reliable hard-liner.

As the Iranian arms-trading crisis spread in Washington, we were reminded by commentators that ours is a government of laws, not of men. And this is perfectly true. Justice ideally is blindfolded. It is not hard to see that a judicial proceeding could easily be subverted if a judge was a friend of the murder victim's family. For this reason trials are sometimes shifted from one venue to another.

In applying the same principle to the government more generally, in particular to the highest levels of government in Washington, we are too much inclined to think of the rule of law as something that is always and only in danger of being subverted by malign or corrupt officials. Often this is the case. But in the case of Ronald Reagan's imprudent dealings with the Iranians it was susceptibility to compassion, not craving for power or wealth, that led him astray. As Machiavelli said, private virtue also can be public vice.

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