Fixing the Second Term Narrative

David M. Abshire (Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1983-1987) a

Cross-posted from Ambassador Abshire’s May 30, 2013 op-ed in the Latin American Herald Tribune.


As President Obama now can attest, the second term of a presidency seems to be accursed by scandal. The most egregious example is the fall of Nixon, from a landslide reelection victory against George McGovern to his resignation under the dark cloud of Watergate. For Reagan, it was Iran-Contra. For Clinton, it was the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment.

However, while the current scandal with the IRS is nowhere near as serious as Iran-Contra, there is a lesson from the Reagan administration that can instruct the President on how to move from scandal to higher ground. Stories of trading arms for hostages ate at the Reagan administration almost for two months before he then organized an extraordinary breakout.

My involvement with this affair began the day after Christmas, 1986, when as NATO Ambassador I received President Reagan’s call to come into the White House and Cabinet as Special Counsel, with special duties and powers under the controversial Chief of Staff Don Reagan. The President told me over the phone quite amazingly that there would be no executive privilege whatsoever. The other unique move was to set up a high level board of former Senator John Tower, former Presidential candidate Senator Ed Muskie and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft.

Its mission was to spend its time on the much bigger picture of examining the breakdown in the National Security Council that had enabled a rogue Lieutenant Colonel on the NSC staff, Oliver North, to transfer of profits of arms sales to Iran to the Contras into Nicaragua. These weapons sales and unappropriated funds violated U.S. law, international sanctions, and the basic tenets of the Constitution. Without a clear accounting and action against those who committed these grave actions, the Reagan presidency stood on the precipice of impeachment.

The basic problem was that overall the first years of the National Security Council under Ronald Reagan were poorly coordinated and mired by the debilitating conflict between the Secretaries of State and Defense. Before I was recalled to Washington, I saw this breakdown firsthand, as only NATO meetings were able to force a joint meeting of these key cabinet members. After more than two-and-a-half months, the Tower board reported its findings on the scandal and the dysfunction of the NSC, and President Reagan made an extraordinary comeback speech to the American public. During this process, I had been in touch with individually with each member of the investigating committees on Capitol Hill. With no exception I found a total unity in supporting the President back on his feet and moving us forward. While significant, Iran-Contra would not be the legacy of President Reagan’s second term. Instead, those four years brought about an overhaul of our tax code, continued economic growth, and the beginning of our victory in the Cold War. A victory won without firing a shot.

My recommendation would be for the President certainly to follow the Reagan policy of complete openness and establish an outside body to review the IRS. Much like Iran-Contra and the NSC, this crisis grew out of the dysfunction within the IRS. A well functioning, fairly operated IRS is vital to our economic security, and this investigation should look across the board at the workings of the IRS to ensure political balance, sound leadership, and adequate resources for its mission. After all this is an issue that deeply affects every taxpayer, one of the oldest issues in our history. This investigation would serve alongside current efforts at tax reform to ensure that our tax collection and management meet both 21st Century challenges and the solemn obligation that the tax code is administered in an unbiased manner. Vital to the outcome of such an investigation would be the individuals named to lead the charge. My recommendation is that it be co-chaired by David Walker, former Comptroller General, and former Senator Kent Conrad, former Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Budget Committee.

The story of second terms has two potential endings. For the president this is an opportunity, like Reagan, to boldly seize the higher ground in a constructive, bipartisan way, and have an ending built around resiliency rather than scandal.