Could This Be Obama's Iran-Contra?

James Greiff is an editor for Bloomberg View. He was Wall Street news team leader at Bloomberg News and senior editor for Bloomberg Markets magazine. He previously reported on banking for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer.
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Peggy Noonan's latest column in the Wall Street Journal is an exercise in ahistorical punditry.

Writing about the triple threat to President Barack Obama posed by the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups seeking exemption from taxes -- along with the Justice Department's subpoenas of journalists' telephone records and the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya -- Noonan writes: "We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate."

Noonan's statement isn't even close to the truth. Watergate was as big as Washington scandals get, claiming a sitting U.S. president, a vice president, large swaths of Richard Nixon's White House staff and senior officials in his 1972 re-election campaign. (And John Dean, Nixon's counsel from July 1970 to April 1973, agrees with me.)

Here's what is closer to being accurate:

This might be the worst Washington scandal since Iran-Contra, in which 14 members of President Ronald Reagan's administration were indicted, including U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Of those charged, 11 were convicted. Some convictions were later tossed out on appeal, and the rest of those involved were pardoned by President George H.W. Bush, who had been vice president under Reagan when the scandal took place.

Reagan and Bush were never implicated. Either they were smart enough to avoid getting ensnared or so oblivious that neither noticed a rogue operation hatched in the basement of the White House.

Iran-Contra started in 1985 as a plan to sell weapons to Iran, which was the subject of a U.S. arms embargo. In return, went the thinking, moderates in the Iranian regime might help to free several U.S. hostages. Iran desperately needed the arms because it was waging a crushing war against neighboring Iraq.

An adviser on Reagan's National Security Council, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, hatched a scheme to use the proceeds of the sales to back insurgents opposed to the Socialist government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. This ploy was meant to evade a congressional ban against aiding the insurgents, also known as Contras, who were accused of widespread human-rights violations.

Iran-Contra never gripped the public imagination or dominated the news as Watergate did. There were no secret slush funds, no enemies lists, no limited hangouts, no cancers on the presidency, no proclamations by the president that he was not a crook.

Maybe Obama's as-of-yet-unnamed scandal will turn into something big. But it still has a way to go before it matches Iran-Contra, much less Watergate.

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