Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
By J.P. Sottile
Ronald Reagan was the "Great Communicator." He just wasn't much of a receiver, transmitter or observer.
That's why his unique contribution to a long-standing Presidential tradition of second-term scandals was the key question at the heart of Iran-Contra: What didn't the President know, and when didn't he know it?
Amazingly enough, this "firewall of ignorance" built around him by his national security team -- a.k.a. the "Secret Team" -- actually worked. He survived a scandal that made Watergate seem quaint by comparison.
Iran-Contra's illegality, extra-constitutionality, and its long-term implications for domestic and foreign policy reverberated through Central America, South-Central Los Angeles, Panama, Iraq, Iran and well into the second Bush Presidency.
Yet, Reagan went on to have a federal building and an airport re-christened in his honor. The American people hold him in high esteem. And he is consistently referred to as a "great president" by the well-heeled residents inside the establishment bubble, and by the political media that blows it.
Famously, among those admirers is President Barack Obama. And why not?
The Reagan Presidency set the gold-standard for Teflon-coating the truth, for conducting secret wars and for acquiescence and service to the all-encompassing power of the national security state.
Ultimately, that type of Executive Branch genuflection cannot happen without layers of plausible deniability between the public face of the Presidency and the private realm of classified America.
The problem arises not only when the denials are so damn implausible, but when the denials hint as a far darker and more systematic problem within the Executive Branch and the shadowy world of the national security state.
In the case of Reagan, he faced the camera and said he didn't really know what a host of high-level advisers and functionaries were doing as they scampered around the White House and around the Constitution like a gaggle of well-intentioned, if personally misguided, busy-bodies. He simply wanted to free American hostages. The details -- the arms, money and drugs changing hands -- were below his pay grade.
The question came down to believability. Some people believed the "genial oaf" persona. Some people believed the "detached manager" persona. And others later blamed the onset of Alzheimer's. The remainder knew that either way, the tenuous rationale propping up the firewall around the President was bad news for the Republic.
Either the President knew full-well what was going on right under his nose and simply play-acted the role of an unfortunate goofball betrayed by his zealous underlings. Or the President was absent on the job, fully unaware of a secret clique of covert operatives running amok in the White House.
American democracy seemed damned if he did, or damned if he didn't.
It had not been long since the Church Committee and Rockefeller Commission exposed many of the lengths and some of the depths to which the CIA went as it operated outside of the system of government -- its checks, balances and laws -- most Americans trusted.
Now it seems the NSA, like the CIA in years past, operates outside the electoral whims of American democracy.
That's the upshot of President Obama's denial that he knew about the NSA's über alles brand of "anti-terrorism" surveillance at home and around the world. And the story about ten years of tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone isn't the half of it. This scandal is evolving into an intimidating look at America's global ambitions and reach.
But, despite his place as commandant of the national security state, Obama's firewallers contend he didn't know. And, in the case of Merkel's phone, when he "found out," he stopped it. Apparently, it was bad a thing. Which brings us right back to his bromance with the Great Communicator and that key question: What didn't the President know, and when didn't he know it?
If Obama is lying, then he is lying. Considering the persistence of Benghazi and the emerging complications with the Affordable Care Act, this possibility presents a host of political problems for both his party in the next election and for Americans' flagging trust in government. Even worse, when added to his secret kill list and ever-more problematic drone war, it looks like his acquiescence to the national security state is more thoroughgoing than some had feared.
And if he isn't lying?
Well, then Americans have been tacitly told they live in different version of the "Two Americas." There is an America of elected officials, federal laws and Constitutionally-guaranteed due process that can be seen, heard and challenged. And there is a shadow America beyond elections and the intermediaries they empower -- even beyond those sent to occupy the Oval Office.
After a May 2010 dinner with the President, historian Douglas Brinkley noted Obama's affinity for the Gipper and said, "Obama is approaching the job in a Reaganesque fashion."
The sad truth may be that, in light of the power both ceded to and relentlessly taken by the national security state, Obama may not have much of a choice.
So, American democracy is damned if he did know, and even more damned if he didn't.
JP Sottile is a freelance journalist, radio co-host, documentary filmmaker and former broadcast news producer in Washington, D.C. His weekly show, Inside the Headlines w/ The Newsvandal, co-hosted by James Moore, airs every Friday on KRUU-FM in Fairfield, Iowa and is available online.
Illustration: Flickr user Edalisse Hirst, creative commons licensed.