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.
When Air Force One arched westward across the continent on Thanksgiving Eve, Ronald Reagan was angry. "There is bitter bile in my throat these days," he said over the telephone that day to a Time magazine editor. "I've never seen the sharks circling like they are now with blood in the water."
"What is driving me up the wall is that this wasn't a failure until the press got a tip from that rag in Beirut and began playing it up," Reagan said. It showed, he added, "a great irresponsibility on the part of the press."
His words were uncharacteristic. Clearly, the President needed some time at Rancho del Cielo--his ranch in the sky, the place in a fold of the Santa Ynez Mountains 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles where, he often said, "I restore myself." There he could chop wood and ride his horse along trails lined by brown manzanita and California holly with bright red berries. There he could sit on the veranda with morning coffee and relax in the evenings with Nancy in front of the flagstone fireplace.
Later, Nancy Reagan would talk about another reason for the "bitter bile" in her husband's throat: He felt deceived by his staff. "It's . . . obviously very disturbing to him and disappointing to him that he was not told things he should have been told," she told the Associated Press as Christmas approached. "Nobody's happy and jubilant about being deceived."
But on Thanksgiving, Reagan, who has always been protective of his aides, was in no mood to fire anyone else on his staff. He seemed convinced that the actions he had taken that week--dismissing North, accepting Poindexter's resignation, appointing the Tower commission to review NSC operations and promising to get all the facts out--would cause the storm to dissipate.
That was his mood when a few old friends talked to him Thanksgiving weekend.
It is not easy to reach Rancho del Cielo. The President and his family fly in by helicopter but most everyone else must endure a seven-mile drive up a narrow, switchback road. Friends like former Atty. Gen. William French Smith and longtime adviser William P. Clark take that road to reach Reagan when he is in California. Or they use the telephone.
They urgently wanted to talk with him. They had been watching from California with growing unease at the way Reagan, his White House staff and top Administration officials reacted to the unfolding disclosures. They urgently wanted to deliver a message: You are in bigger trouble than you realize.
One friend harked back to the words of Harry S. Truman: "A President either is constantly on top of events, or, if he hesitates, events will soon be on top of him."
Their friend Ronald Reagan had hesitated, they believed, and now events were smothering him. His standing in the polls was plunging faster than any President's ever had--faster even than Nixon's during Watergate. A majority of Americans did not believe he was telling the truth. His credibility with foreign allies was crumbling. Congress was in a mood to make his last two years in office miserable. Republican leaders--and even his own wife--were clamoring for him to "clean house."
So on Thanksgiving weekend, friends delivered the message to the President while he was restoring his inner-self in the century-old adobe ranch house where the five rooms are decorated with a mismatch of movie show bills and historical posters, ornate belt buckles and gaudy sombreros, family photos and expensive Western paintings.
Gently but firmly, they delivered a warning: Unless you act, the successes of your presidency are in serious danger of being overwhelmed by this strange scandal.
"Until then," a friend said of the frank discussions, "he did not fathom how very, very serious and threatening it was to him and to the presidency."
The President got the message. For the first time, it later was said, Reagan began to realize the dimensions of his problems. He returned to Washington and quickly turned to television and radio, the media through which he built his reputation as the great communicator. At least for a while, there would be no more uncontrolled news conferences where he might stumble, or magazine interviews where his anger might again boil out so starkly onto the printed page.
From the controlled confines of the Oval Office, he announced on national television that he wanted an independent counsel, as well as special Watergate-style congressional committees to investigate. And in his Saturday radio address from Camp David, Reagan acknowledged that mistakes had been made in the Iran arms- contra cash affair, though he still stopped short of conceding he had made any himself.
And Reagan let it be known he would even consider taking the unusual step of appearing personally before a committee of Congress to tell all he knew, a move urged upon him by his friend, retiring Sen. Laxalt. Some way must be found, Laxalt declared, to stop the steady and maddening drip of disclosures by journalists suddenly energized into pursuit of a story with a vigor unseen since the Watergate days.
Indeed the disclosures had come so thick and fast, and had been so damaging, that some wondered whether it was already too late for the President to do or say anything to stem the tide of scandal that lapped at the White House door.