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

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Things only became worse. Attorney General Edwin Meese, at the president’s request, began an information investigation among White House staff to see if there was more being kept from the president. Mr. Meese discovered Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North’s assistant busily shredding top secret documents in the Old Executive office Building. Mr. North was the secret author of the illegal transfer of arms for hostages.

Meese rescued one document showing that North, in a covert operation from the Old Executive Building, had directed the profits from Iranian arm sales to the Contras, the “freedom fighters” in Central America. Plainly, this transfer violated the Constitution: it was a misappropriation of funds, grounds for impeachment if the president was a party to the decision. The public problem would be that Reagan was the outspoken supporter of these “freedom fighters.” The famous Watergate question reemerged: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

A distressed Meese took the news directly to the Oval Office. Reagan was stricken when confronted for the first time with what North had done. But then the breakout began that was, I believe, unparalleled in presidential history.

Bold steps to restore integrity

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