President Obama had a perfect model for how to respond to the scandal in the wake of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. He could have turned to the actions of another president—Ronald Reagan—to show him how to quickly regain the trust and confidence of Congress and the American people.
The 1986 Iran-Contra affair represented the most significant and potentially disruptive political crisis of the Reagan presidency. In his book “Saving the American Presidency,” Ambassador David Abshire recounts his role in restoring what Reagan declared his top imperative—“Trust,” the president had said, “is the coin of the realm.” Abshire was called to the Oval Office and given one mission by the president—make sure the White House was doing everything possible to get the truth and the whole truth out. In contrast to “spin doctors” who work the halls of Washington, Abshire’s task was to make sure everyone knew the president was holding nothing back.
Abshire’s account of a White House focused on serving the public rather than obfuscating the truth “not only informs us about the past,” as one review of the book describes, “but offers important lessons on how future leaders can restore their reputations and re-gain the confidence of the people after a public scandal.”
For his part, Obama had several opportunities to follow the Reagan model—and he let them all pass. It is, perhaps, understandable, why, in the heat of a national re-election campaign, given the difficulty of sorting out the events on the ground, and the administration’s initial missteps in handling the crisis, it might have been a bit much to ask the White House to stop everything and come clean. But, even after the election, when the president had no reason to hold back—the administration continued to play rope-a-dope with the truth.
Once congressional inquires had begun, the Oval Office had another opportunity to come clean—but the president let that go by as well.
Finally, when Congress demonstrated its frustration by establishing an independent investigative committee, the president again had a chance to regain the coin of trust. Instead, the administration ridiculed and mocked the latest effort by Congress to get at the truth.
The real truth is that the president’s obfuscation has compounded the tragedy of Benghazi by damaging our trust in our president—something presidents such as Ronald Reagan would never intentionally do.