With former President Jimmy Carter receiving palliative care at home at age 98, a long-time GOP political operator has come forward to confirm that Reagan's campaign sabotaged Carter's Iran hostage rescue efforts on purpose to win the 1980 election.
It has been more than four decades, but Ben Barnes said he remembers it vividly. His longtime political mentor invited him on a mission to the Middle East. What Mr. Barnes said he did not realize until later was the real purpose of the mission: to sabotage the re-election campaign of the president of the United States.
It was 1980 and Jimmy Carter was in the White House, bedeviled by a hostage crisis in Iran that had paralyzed his presidency and hampered his effort to win a second term. Mr. Carter’s best chance for victory was to free the 52 Americans held captive before Election Day. That was something that Mr. Barnes said his mentor was determined to prevent.
His mentor was John B. Connally Jr., a titan of American politics and former Texas governor who had served three presidents and just lost his own bid for the White House. A former Democrat, Mr. Connally had sought the Republican nomination in 1980 only to be swamped by former Gov. Ronald Reagan of California. Now Mr. Connally resolved to help Mr. Reagan beat Mr. Carter and in the process, Mr. Barnes said, make his own case for becoming secretary of state or defense in a new administration.
What happened next Mr. Barnes has largely kept secret for nearly 43 years. Mr. Connally, he said, took him to one Middle Eastern capital after another that summer, meeting with a host of regional leaders to deliver a blunt message to be passed to Iran: Don’t release the hostages before the election. Mr. Reagan will win and give you a better deal.
Then shortly after returning home, Mr. Barnes said, Mr. Connally reported to William J. Casey, the chairman of Mr. Reagan’s campaign and later director of the Central Intelligence Agency, briefing him about the trip in an airport lounge.
Mr. Carter’s camp has long suspected that Mr. Casey or someone else in Mr. Reagan’s orbit sought to secretly torpedo efforts to liberate the hostages before the election, and books have been written on what came to be called the October surprise. But congressional investigations debunked previous theories of what happened.
Mr. Connally did not figure in those investigations. His involvement, as described by Mr. Barnes, adds a new understanding to what may have happened in that hard-fought, pivotal election year. With Mr. Carter now 98 and in hospice care, Mr. Barnes said he felt compelled to come forward to correct the record.
“History needs to know that this happened,” Mr. Barnes, who turns 85 next month, said in one of several interviews, his first with a news organization about the episode. “I think it’s so significant and I guess knowing that the end is near for President Carter put it on my mind more and more and more. I just feel like we’ve got to get it down some way.”
Mr. Barnes is no shady foreign arms dealer with questionable credibility, like some of the characters who fueled previous iterations of the October surprise theory. He was once one of the most prominent figures in Texas, the youngest speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and later lieutenant governor. He was such an influential figure that he helped a young George W. Bush get into the Texas Air National Guard rather than be exposed to the draft and sent to Vietnam. Lyndon B. Johnson predicted that Mr. Barnes would become president someday.
Confirming Mr. Barnes’s account is problematic after so much time. Mr. Connally, Mr. Casey and other central figures have long since died and Mr. Barnes has no diaries or memos to corroborate his account. But he has no obvious reason to make up the story and indeed expressed trepidation at going public because of the reaction of fellow Democrats.
Mr. Barnes identified four living people he said he had confided in over the years: Mark K. Updegrove, president of the L.B.J. Foundation; Tom Johnson, a former aide to Lyndon Johnson (no relation) who later became publisher of the Los Angeles Times and president of CNN; Larry Temple, a former aide to Mr. Connally and Lyndon Johnson; and H.W. Brands, a University of Texas historian.
All four of them confirmed in recent days that Mr. Barnes shared the story with them years ago. “As far as I know, Ben never has lied to me,” Tom Johnson said, a sentiment the others echoed. Mr. Brands included three paragraphs about Mr. Barnes’s recollections in a 2015 biography of Mr. Reagan, but the account generated little public notice at the time.
Records at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum confirm part of Mr. Barnes’s story. An itinerary found this past week in Mr. Connally’s files indicated that he did, in fact, leave Houston on July 18, 1980, for a trip that would take him to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel before returning to Houston on Aug. 11. Mr. Barnes was listed as accompanying him.
The original, old-school October Surprise really was a Reagan dirty trick designed to sabotage a sitting president's re-election campaign and it worked, and they basically got away with it for my entire lifetime, and the only reason we know what we know now is that Jimmy Carter is facing his final days and the guilt was too much for one of the assholes to bear.
We all knew it was, the Iranians released the hostages literally minutes after Reagan was sworn in on January 20, 1981.
And yet when I told Zandardad about this, a man who was proud to vote for Carter then and met him in person years later, he said little would come of this, and that he'd still prefer Reagan to the current GOP.
God help me, he's not wrong.