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October Surprises aren't new in American politics

Published Oct. 13, 2005

One of the spookier stories making the rounds over the past 10 years involves something that's come to be known as the "October Surprise." You've probably heard about it recently. We've had several articles and editorials about it in this newspaper. There was a program about it on public television and a piece in the New York Times that got President Bush so steamed up he sent his spokesman out to call people nasty names.

Briefly, the October Surprise story goes like this:

It's the fall of 1980. President Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, are in the final stage of their campaign for the presidency. Public opinion polls show Reagan will be a clear winner because Carter is being hurt badly by the fact that Iran is still holding the 52 Americans it took hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran a year earlier.

But Reagan's campaign manager, a former intelligence agent named Bill Casey, is getting positively paranoid over the possibility that Carter might spring an "October Surprise" _ cut a deal with the Iranians to free the hostages just before the election. As Casey sees it, this would give Carter just the boost he needs to win another four years in office.

The central accusation is that Casey moved to thwart any possible Carter hostage surprise by cutting his own secret deal with the Iranians _ not to free the American diplomats, but to keep them captive in Tehran at least until after the election.

There are two irrefutable facts that, while they don't exactly back up the central accusation directly, do make it seem well worth looking into.

The first is that Iran eventually released the American hostages a few minutes after Reagan took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1981. The second is that within days, massive shipments of American-made weapons and spare parts began moving secretly from Israel to Iran. Most reasonable people looking at those two facts in the context of 1980 might conclude that the first was the cause of the second _ that the weapons were the Reagan administration's quid pro quo.

If the October Surprise scenario sounds plausible to you, then join the club. It does to a lot of other people too. Maybe it's because we learned a bit more about Bill Casey after Reagan appointed him head of the Central Intelligence Agency; especially, when it came out that he was probably the central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal _ another deal involving the secret shipment of weapons to Iran in exchange for favors.

But if it's true, if the October Surprise scenario really happened, then it makes the Watergate scandal of 1972-74 look like what the Republicans originally said it was _ a third rate burglary.

For one thing, Watergate was a strictly domestic affair. No foreign intrigue was involved. I was living in Belgium when the Watergate story took off and few foreigners could figure out what it was about much less why Americans were getting so worked up over it. To this day, many Europeans and Asians still don't understand why Nixon got bounced out of office.

If anything, the October Surprise scenario more closely parallels accusations in 1968 that Richard Nixon's presidential campaign had pulled a secret deal to sabotage President Lyndon Johnson's efforts to get peace talks started with Vietnam.

Johnson's "October Surprise" plan was to call a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam in October of that year with the hopes of convening three-cornered peace talks with both North and South Vietnam before the presidential balloting the following month. With peace talks under way, Hubert Humphrey might have a chance of beating Nixon in the election. According to Johnson administration officials and others, Republican Party operatives used mediators to persuade the South Vietnamese to boycott the talks, thereby sabotaging Johnson's plan and clearing the way for Nixon to beat Humphrey that November.

If the allegations against Nixon are true, then he got away with a lot more in 1968 than he got nailed for six years later. Manipulating peace talks _ and putting many thousands of American lives at risk in the jungles of Vietnam _ would indeed make the Watergate break-in a third rate burglary. And so would the latest allegations against Reagan _ if they're true.

But as in those 1968 allegations against Nixon, the "ifs" are still mighty big. The latest scenario involving Republican election trickery is still that _ only a scenario. Nobody's come up with any solid evidence to prove it. At this stage of the game, it may be impossible to do that.

Gary Sick, a former Carter administration national security assistant, rekindled the controversy in April by writing in the New York Times that he had become convinced that Casey cut a deal with the Iranians. Sick, however, is among the first to admit that so far there's no "smoking gun" evidence in this one as there was in the Watergate scandal.

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the president of Iran through most of the hostage crisis, has said repeatedly that he can prove Casey met with Iranian officials in the fall of 1980 to derail the Carter administration negotiations efforts. But when he had a chance to put his evidence on the table with congressional investigators in Washington last month, he turned up empty-handed.

All of which prompted Bush to send out Marlin Fitzwater to call the allegations "trash," to attack Gary Sick as "the Kitty Kelley of foreign policy," and to warn the Democrats they would "look foolish" if they took the accusations seriously enough to investigate them.

Not surprisingly, the lack of a "smoking gun" has the Democrats in Congress running scared. They know that an all-out October Surprise scandal might be their only hope of defeating Bush in next year's presidential election. But they also know that a full-scale congressional investigation like the one that busted open the Watergate scandal would come across as partisan opportunism of the worst kind _ especially if there was no solid evidence that would nail a prominent Republican, i.e. Bush, to the wall.

That's why the Democratic leadership chose a decidedly low-key way of handling the allegations. Instead of a full-scale committee investigation and public hearings that would get a lot of media attention, House Speaker Tom Foley distributed pieces of the allegations to several committees for "preliminary staff investigations." That way, if no killer evidence turns up, the whole matter can be shoved back in the drawer and forgotten without too many people getting embarrassed.

Another thing the Democrats worry about is that a full-scale committee hearing might create another Republican hero like Oliver North in the Iran-Contra scandal. Because even though North and his boss, John Poindexter, got nailed, the Iran-Contra hearings turned out to be a losing proposition for just about everyone concerned. With Bill Casey dead from a cancer by that time, Poindexter was as high up as the investigation could go. Reagan and his vice president, Bush, were untouched and the Democrats again looked ineffective and, at best, petulant.

Where these latest accusations will go is anybody's guess right now. About the only thing certain is that you can finally forget that old adage about partisan politics stopping at the water's edge. Hardly anybody believes it anymore. And when it comes to hard-ball politicking, certainly nobody practices it.

That's too bad because running our superpower foreign affairs is complicated enough as it is without opening it up to America's latest blood sport _ presidential campaigning.

Jack Payton is foreign editor of the St. Petersburg Times.

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