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.
The Oval Office, in the West Wing of the White House, is the official workplace of the President of the United States and thus symbolically the most important office in the Western World. In practice, it is used for ceremonial purposes and meetings; when President Ronald Reagan must grapple alone with a specific task, he often retreats to a small study nearby.
As the winter of 1985 gave way to spring, Reagan carried two enormous problems with him into his West Wing hideaway, one a personal obsession and the other a daring but dangerous policy proposal. And gradually, as the apparatus of White House decision-making ground forward, the two problems became linked.
First, there was the fate of his intelligence agent, William Buckley, and the torment of six other Americans who by this time were prisoners of Muslim fundamentalists in Beirut.
American hostages were a particularly sensitive subject for Reagan; in no small part, he owed his own election in 1980 to public revulsion against President Jimmy Carter's apparent weakness in the Iran hostage crisis. The continued existence of hostages in Lebanon mocked Reagan's own pledges of strength.
Moreover, these hostages seem to have exerted a profound emotional pressure on the President. He talked continually, longingly about bringing them home, aides remember. And as time went on, the pressure mounted because the prisoners' plight grew more desperate.
Buckley had been in the habit of sending post cards to friends at the library in Lexington, Mass., where he had worked years before as assistant director between stints with the CIA and then Army intelligence. The post cards had been from "shoot 'em up places," a library employee recalls. Now, none of his friends heard anything from this dark-haired, handsome man.
Sometime in 1984, however, Washington had somehow received word that Buckley was being brutally tortured by his captors. In the secret corridors of CIA headquarters, the impact of the report was powerful.
Beneath his quiet facade, William Buckley was tough. In Korea, he had lost two of his toes to frostbite. During Army training, he had made a night parachute drop, landed on a rock and broken his back. Doctors said he would never walk; within a year, he had proven them wrong.
But the reports--the CIA still refuses to describe them or say how they were received--brought a message of horror. And that summer, when the terrorists in Beirut released a videotape of Buckley, its 56 seconds reinforced the CIA's sense of desperation.
"I am well," Buckley said into the camera. But it was a lie. He was hollow-cheeked. He looked defeated, weak. "My friends Benjamin Weir and Jeremy Levin also are well," he said.
Then, in words that must have been freighted with meaning for the fellow professionals who knew him, Buckley pleaded with his government: "Take action for our release quickly."
At CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., the mute evidence of Buckley's suffering brought hardened men to tears.
The days of captivity were piling up on the others too.
Terry Anderson, bureau chief for the Associated Press, kidnaped a year after Buckley, was being beaten too. He prayed, using a rosary he fashioned from fuzz balls and string. He argued, he balked. He suffered, he later told Newsweek, depression and distraction.
His wife, Madeleine, had been pregnant. He knew nothing about whether he had a child until one of his Shia guards suffered the death of his own wife and was moved to play for Anderson a videotape showing Madeleine on television--with their new daughter.
David P. Jacobsen, hospital administrator at the American University of Beirut, kidnaped after Anderson, was blindfolded and chained hand and foot to the floor of a room a dozen feet square. He was stripped to his underwear. After six weeks, the blindfold came off. He and Anderson and Thomas Sutherland, dean of agriculture at American University, and the Rev. Benjamin F. Weir and Father Lawrence M. Jenco, who ran the Catholic Relief Services in Beirut, paced the tiny prison, around and around, back and forth. Softly, Jacobsen sang the songs from every musical he could recall. Once, he took a painful beating on the soles of both feet.
He and the others formed "The Church of the Locked Door" and prayed together twice a day.
When hostages aboard hijacked TWA Flight 847 were freed in Beirut in the summer of 1985, Jacobsen wrote a three-page letter that found its way to the West. "If President Reagan could authorize negotiations for the TWA hostages, why not for us?" he demanded angrily. "America and Russia exchange spies all the time. Why can't we be exchanged?"