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Hostages to Ronald Reagan’s political ambitions

This is an excerpt from Outtakes, a Globe Opinion newsletter from columnist Renée Graham. Sign up to get this in your inbox a day early.
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In an episode of HBO’s brutally astute political comedy “Veep,” President Selina Meyer negotiates the release of an American journalist held in Iran. The reporter soon discovers that his detainment was prolonged by the White House to give Meyer a triumphant photo op as an exclamation point for her first Middle East trip.

Beneath the surface of that cynical plotline lay a decades-old rumor — that a covert deal was struck among parties unknown to stall the release of 52 American hostages in Iran. The goal — to derail President Jimmy Carter’s bid for a second term.


Turns out it wasn’t a rumor.

A recent story in The New York Times essentially confirmed that members of Ronald Reagan’s campaign team schemed to keep Americans imprisoned in Iran until after the 1980 election. For months, the Iran hostage crisis consumed Carter’s presidency, and Reagan’s camp feared that the Americans’ release would provide a morale boost for both the country and Carter’s reelection.

Ben Barnes, once a prominent Texas politician, revealed that he spent the summer of 1980 traveling with John Connally, the former Texas governor and Democrat turned Republican. According to the Times, Connally took Barnes to “one Middle Eastern capital after another” and met with “a host of regional leaders to deliver a blunt message: Don’t release the hostages before the election. Mr. Reagan will win and give you a better deal.”

Connally, Barnes said, then reported the details to William Casey, Reagan’s campaign chair and later CIA director. After 444 days in captivity, the hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981 — the same day Reagan was sworn in as this nation’s 40th president.

“History needs to know that this happened,” Barnes said. “I think it’s so significant and I guess knowing that the end is near for President Carter put it on my mind more and more and more. I just feel like we’ve got to get it down some way.” Carter, 98, is receiving home hospice care.


In their pursuit of power, Republicans turned the fate of American lives into political gamesmanship. To Reagan and his men, getting the hostages out of harm’s way and back to their families as soon as possible was a distant second to using them as a ploy to sabotage Carter’s reelection.

Donald Trump is expected to become the first sitting or former president criminally indicted. But never forget the vile machinations of another Republican, canonized as a conservative icon, who used Americans as pawns and exploited a deeply wounded nation awash in yellow ribbons of hope for his own political fortune.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.