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Ronald Reagan at 100: How America's 40th president passed a key test of character

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A stunning account

Immediately following Reagan’s meeting at the Reykjavik summit, he met with me, other ambassadors, and heads of government at NATO. Reagan gave a stunning account of what had happened. Throughout, Secretary of State George Shultz was on the edge of his chair for fear Reagan might trip up on the details, yet Reagan was surefooted throughout. The president of France, Francois Mitterrand, commented to me on the way out, “Votre president est magnifique.”

Then came Reagan’s big test of personal character. One of my duties at NATO was to chastise ambassadorial colleagues for their nation’s sale of arms to nations supporting terrorism. Iran was at the top of the terrorist list because of its support of Hezbollah. In November 1986, there appeared a story in a Lebanese newspaper, Al-Shiraa, saying the US had sold forbidden arms to Iran in an attempted swap for several hostages held by Hezbollah, including the CIA chief of station.

A major mistake

When the story broke, Reagan made a disastrous mistake. Heeding poor counsel from one of his advisers, Reagan lied about these attempts at a press conference, and then did so again in a speech to the nation. He did it in order to protect the hostages’ lives, but he was not a good liar. He couldn’t even act the part, and looked like a kid caught lying to his teacher with fingers crossed. The presidency was sinking in quicksand for the next six weeks. Only 14 percent of the public believed him, and his credibility was damaged around the world. Winning the cold war was in doubt.

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