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The Worst Decision Ronald Reagan Ever Made

The Worst Decision Ronald Reagan Ever Made

By Sean Braswell


Because you should avoid moving heavy things, including anti-tank missiles, after an operation.

By Sean Braswell

The Iran-Contra scandal still casts a dark cloud over the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. And throughout the subsequent congressional hearings and prosecutions of those involved, the 40th U.S. commander-in-chief insisted that he could not remember ever having ordered the first shipment of arms to Iran in 1985 or that he had any knowledge that the profits from those weapons’ sales were being diverted to Nicaraguan Contras. 

“I’m not going to tell falsehoods to the American people,” Reagan insisted at the height of the scandal in 1987, but many still found his denials implausible, particularly in light of the fact that the two-year secret campaign had been organized by two of his closest White House advisers. Was Reagan really that forgetful? Was he lying? Was he a master tactician hiding under the veneer of a country rube, as Saturday Night Live’s Phil Hartman famously portrayed him at the time? Well, there may in fact be a more benign reason for Reagan’s hazy memory — at least regarding the initial decision to sell arms to Iran — but one that starts with something potentially malignant.

Did Reagan rush his recovery in a way that could have compromised his presidency?

That something was a large polyp that Reagan’s doctors discovered on his lower right colon during a routine colonoscopy on Friday, July 12, 1985. The president elected to have the potentially cancerous growth removed the next day. Around 10:30 a.m. the following morning at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland, Reagan signed a letter invoking the 25th Amendment and transferring the powers of the presidency temporarily to Vice President George Bush, commencing with the start of anesthesia. At 11:15 a.m., Reagan was wheeled into the operating room with his wife, Nancy, walking beside him, holding his hand. Injecting his trademark levity into the situation, Reagan joked with his doctors: “After what you did yesterday, this ought to be a breeze.”

The three-hour surgery was successful, and doctors removed two feet of Reagan’s lower intestine in addition to the two-inch growth, which was sent for biopsy. Bush remained acting president until after 7 p.m. that evening while Reagan remained under the effects of the anesthesia and postoperative painkillers. But was that long enough, and did Reagan rush his recovery in a way that could have compromised his presidency in the ensuing days? Robert E. Gilbert, a political scientist at Northeastern University and a leading authority on the mental and physical illnesses of American presidents, has interviewed the key medical personnel surrounding Reagan at the time. He argues that it’s very likely the president was not in a condition to make important decisions at the time. “It is very unfortunate,” Gilbert says, “that Reagan resumed his powers and duties so soon after undergoing this major surgery and while contemplating a likely cancer diagnosis.”

The president spent a week recovering at the hospital before returning to the White House and eventually made a full recovery. But Reagan, in his mid-70s, was not a young man and should not have been making decisions so soon after having extensive cancer surgery, argues Gilbert. “He was in pain, had trouble eating and had had several sleepless nights.” 

And, unfortunately, events did not wait for the president’s recovery. After representatives from Israel communicated to National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane that Iranian “moderates” would help secure the release of seven U.S. hostages held by Hezbollah in return for the sale of arms, he sought an audience with Reagan in the hospital. The first lady and other aides kept McFarlane out for several days, but finally, on July 18, a mere five days after his surgery and subsequently learning his growth had been cancerous, the president met with his national security adviser. During this meeting, McFarlane would later claim, Reagan approved the arms-for-hostages exchange, responding, “Gee, that sounds pretty good.” 

Reagan would later note in his diary that he had given his approval but would have trouble even remembering the meeting had occurred in later years. According to the medical experts Gilbert interviewed, such memory lapses and other types of mental impairment, including disorientation, confusion and trouble thinking logically, are common after such a procedure, combined with the taking of anesthesia and other postoperative painkillers, particularly in older individuals like Reagan.

The arms-for-hostages deal with the so-called Iranian moderates, who later turned out to be agents of Iran’s government seeking to dupe U.S. leaders, would balloon from there and plague the administration for years to come, calling into question Reagan’s credibility and decision-making and harming his presidency’s standing in history. “The 25th Amendment afforded Reagan the means by which his involvement in these events could easily have been avoided,” says Gilbert, and the decision to resume his presidential duties so quickly after cancer surgery “contributed materially to the most damaging episode of Reagan’s eight-year presidency.”

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