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Filling in the gaps, moving on


By Robert C. McFarlane

Caddel and Davies, $25

Reviewed by Eugene Lewis

Feeling depressed and shamed for what he had wrongly felt was dishonoring his office, Bud McFarlane takes 30 Valium and a glass of wine and goes to bed. The next morning when his wife discovers him breathing but unresponsive, she calls a local doctor. Later, McFarlane awakens in a Bethesda hospital, discovers he is not quite facing his Maker and decides to go on living.

"I have always been able to deal with systems, and the system at the hospital was predictable," McFarlane writes of his hospital stay in Special Trust. "I had to show a certain amount of progress by a certain amount of time; I had to give the right answers to a certain list of questions, and I had to make the proper physical progress. Fill in all the squares and you get out."

Raised in the code of male toughness and honor given him by his Texas congressman father, the Naval Academy and the Marine Corps, McFarlane was the essence of the cool technocrat. Decent, patriotic, hard-working, ambitious, loyal and honest, he worked for Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford, Alexander Haig and Ronald Reagan, moving from a minor functionary in the Nixon years to become the assistant to the president for national security affairs under Reagan. McFarlane knew how to take orders. The suicide attempt, like the Iran-Contra scandal, seemed to him at some level incomprehensible.

But two systems had broken down: McFarlane's and that of the Reagan administration.

What Oliver North, the late CIA director William Casey and others did in the Iran-Contra scandal was dishonest. North and Casey built an "off the shelf" organization to supply the contras and to divert funds from the sale of arms for hostages to Iran. Most of the defense the former president put forth in public was of the "in my heart I know I didn't trade arms for hostages" variety. But the larger question of public trust remains: Which members of the administration knew of the Casey-North arrangement?

Certainly, George Bush, Caspar Weinberger and George Shultz knew that something was going on. Indeed, after Judge Walsh, the special prosecutor, got his hands on the notes Weinberger denied having kept, it was clear that arms-for-hostages and extragovernmental aid to the contras were known to most high-level officials.

McFarlane took responsibility for not knowing what went on. For this he is to be credited, if only for his old-fashioned notion of public trust. Apparently, others sworn to uphold the Constitution did not share that view. Now historians are left with the unshredded remains of an episode which harmed America. McFarlane's sad tale makes a contribution to our understanding of this disgraceful episode. His picture of an intellectually limited Ronald Reagan, and a scheming collection of true believers and cynical climbers whose egos often defined the limits of public trust is frightening.

Weinberger comes off as an insubordinate, pig-headed, know-nothing defense secretary whose main contribution to the Reagan administration was an unwillingness to use force and an uncanny ability to fight with Shultz and Congress to the detriment of all. McFarlane calls North "deceitful, mendacious and traitorous." At moments McFarlane is moving in relating his hurt at what his subordinate and fellow Marine did.

When George Bush issued his famous Christmas pardon of the Irangate gang, McFarlane wrote to him:

"What have Americans seen happen in this tawdry episode? They've seen a president (who approved every single action I ever took in this matter) refuse from a lack of intellectual moral fiber to defend his point of view, to refuse to support or even to acknowledge the truthfulness of those who acted in his behalf, and escape from any measure of accountability."

Since at least the Gulf of Tonkin charade, which Lyndon Johnson used to vastly expand the Vietnam War, creation of American foreign policy has suffered severe institutional stress. Congress, the media, several presidents and multiple bureaucracies have contributed to a political atmosphere of distrust, confusion and dishonesty. McFarlane and North provide two sides of the coin minted in this atmosphere.

McFarlane is now a businessman and author. North is getting alarmingly close to becoming a U.S. senator. If the fiasco that highlights this memoir were not so damaging to our institutions, it might well be read as a black comedy about some all-American boys making good by "understanding systems."

Eugene Lewis is a professor of political science at New College of USF in Sarasota.