After six years of magic, President Reagan broke the spell. By deceiving the nation, he and those around him badly damaged his presidency. This traumatic tale is still unfolding, with no end in sight. This is how it developed.
'We did not--repeat did not--trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we.'
Nov. 13 television address.
'I was not fully informed on the nature of one of the activities undertaken in connection with this initiative.'
Nov. 25 appearance in White House briefing room.
'It's obvious that the execution of these policies was flawed, and mistakes were made.'
Dec. 6 radio address.
The morning William Buckley was kidnaped, he saw it coming--but by the time he realized what the white Renault meant, it was too late.
Buckley was gentle, dark-haired, slender and single. He had a deep voice and even at 57 a smile that women remembered. He was also a spy.
That day, March 16, 1984, he would have gotten up expecting trouble; in Beirut, everyone, each day got up expecting trouble. As Buckley came down from the 10th-floor penthouse reserved for the Central Intelligence Agency station chief, however, the elevator would have been warm with the reassuring smell of apartment cooking. Potatoes, meat, vegetables, cinnamon and nutmeg. And mold, of course. Even in the fanciest apartments in Manara, this semi-safe part of the war-torn city, the elevators smelled musty.
"Good morning!" the concierge remembers Buckley saying.
At 7:30, the street was quiet, and that day the air was fresh. Often the wind blew the wrong way and carried the stench of garbage from the nearby dumps where rats and stray cats scavenged for their existence. But in March the winter storms are mostly over, and the breezes off the Mediterranean are kind. They carry the scent of Arabic coffee--thick, sweet and hot--from neighborhood shops.
Buckley walked to a tiny parking lot close by, neighbors remember, got into his beige Honda and drove into the narrow street. The white Renault pulled in front of him, turned and blocked his path. Three men inside had guns.
Farther down the street was an orange Peugeot. It too had stopped, turned and blocked both lanes. Inside were two men. Buckley slammed the Honda into reverse, but he was trapped. Behind him, beyond his own apartment building, was a dead end.
"Come see!" shouted a neighbor. "Come see! They're taking Mr. Buckley!"
One man grabbed Buckley by the back of his neck, put a gun to his head and forced him into the Renault. There was no struggle. The Renault sped away south along Beirut's once-elegant seafront boulevard, a now-potholed road with long-neglected palm trees adorning its median strip. Car, occupants, Buckley--none ever returned.
The abduction of William Francis Buckley, a seemingly small tragedy measured against the colossal savagery of war-torn Lebanon, was one of those rare occasions on which the fate of a single individual can nudge the elbow of history and help precipitate far-reaching consequences.
Buckley was one of a dozen Americans seized by Lebanese terrorists in Beirut between February of 1984 and October of 1986. And the plight of this handful of Americans was to become one of the critical elements in a complex drama that eventually burst forth as the Iran- contras scandal.
A critical element, but not the only one.
The scandal--in which American arms were secretly shipped to Iran despite rigid U.S. policy to the contrary and profits were siphoned off to arm Nicaragua's anti-Sandinista guerrillas despite a specific congressional ban on military aid--sprang from a tangle of motives and human weaknesses worthy of a Dostoevsky novel.
And it came to involve a cast of characters spread around the world, from Lebanon and Iran to Israel, Europe, the United States and the jungles of Central America.
For Buckley and his fellow hostages were only part of the story. There were international arms merchants snuffling after quick profits, American officials hoping to manipulate history from the White House situation room, Iranian politicians whose daily battles for survival made them cynical almost beyond measure, and above it all an American President who, leaning on his powers as the "Great Communicator," all his life shunned the details of governing.