The fine art of the political knife in the back

February 5th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

After spending more than a week soaking up hot sun and hanging out with the wonderful people of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, I’ve returned tanned, energized, and ready to reenter the fray. Much has happened in the last couple of weeks while I was gone. What follows will examine one particularly troubling issue, troubling, but not surprising. It’s all about how to stick a knife in your opponent’s back without him ever knowing it’s there. It’s also about the uncaring isolationist messages we continue to send to our global partners, who only have so much patience. It’s longer than usual; I’m making up for lost time.

Forty-three years ago

The year was 1980. That January, Paul McCartney was arrested at Tokyo International Airport for possession of marijuana. He was sent to jail for nine days, and then deported. In May, the US announced it would boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics due to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan (sound familiar?). In September, Voyager 1, launched three years earlier, confirmed the existence of Janus, a moon of Saturn. In October, the Philadelphia Phillies defeated the Kansas City Royals in six games to win the World Series, the first in franchise history. And in November, America held a presidential election, an election in which Ronald Reagan easily defeated incumbent President Jimmy Carter by 8.5 million votes. It was a landslide.

Exactly one year before that election, Iranian students had seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and taken 63 Americans hostage.¹ The assault on the Embassy happened, because two weeks earlier President Carter had allowed the deposed Iranian ruler, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, into the United States for cancer treatment. The students took exception to Carter’s charitable gesture.

The hostages would be held for 444 days, from 4 November 1979 to their release on 20 January 1981, precisely seven minutes after the inauguration of the new President. Simultaneously, the US freed $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets. 

The Carter Administration had worked hard to free the hostages, even going so far as to launch a rescue mission in April, Operation Eagle Claw, involving personnel from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Eagle Claw turned into a fiasco in the Iranian desert sand and had to be aborted. During withdrawal, a helicopter collided with a C-130 and exploded, destroying both aircraft and killing five Air Force personnel and three Marines. The remaining troops were quickly evacuated by plane, leaving behind several helicopters, equipment, weapons, maps, and the dead. The rescue operation that never happened caused Jimmy Carter’s popularity to decline and Ronald Reagan’s to soar, even though he’d had nothing to do with it.

The Carter Administration remained seriously intent on negotiating the release of the hostages, but Iran would never engage, even refusing negotiation through intermediate countries.

However, we recently learned serious negotiations of a sort were happening, although not by the Carter administration, and they led to the release of all hostages, as well as the frozen Iranian assets, just as Reagan was taking the oath of office. How did that happen?

John B. Connally Jr., a titan of American politics and former Texas governor who had served three presidents, had just lost his own bid for the White House to Ronald Reagan in 1980. This is the same John Connally who was seriously wounded while sitting in the front seat of the presidential limousine when Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Seventeen years later, in 1980, Connally was earnestly working to get Reagan elected; he had hopes of becoming either Secretary of State or Defense in a Reagan Administration (he was offered Energy, but refused).

John Connally was mentor to Ben Barnes, who, at 26, had been the youngest Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. Barnes would later become the state’s lieutenant governor, and was influential enough to help a young George W. Bush get into the Texas Air National Guard rather than be exposed to the draft and sent to Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson predicted Barnes would become President someday.

Barnes is now 85, and has kept a secret for the last 43 years. But his conscience will not allow him to keep it any longer, because Jimmy Carter, at 98, is in Hospice, and Barnes is sorry.

Ten months ago, he sat down with Peter Baker of the New York Times, to tell his story. It did not get much play at the time, it’s ancient history after all, but it’s relevant now, at least to me.

As Barnes tells it, in the summer of 1980, Connally asked him to take a trip with him — to the middle east. They went from one Middle Eastern capital after another that summer, meeting with a host of regional leaders so Connally could deliver a blunt message to be passed to Iran: Don’t release the hostages before the election. Mr. Reagan will win and give you a better deal.

Barnes has pictures to prove it. Here’s one he gave the Times’s Baker of him and Connally with Egypt’s President, Anwar Sadat.

Immediately upon returning home, Barnes said Connally reported to William Casey, the chairman of Mr. Reagan’s campaign and later director of the Central Intelligence Agency, briefing him about the trip in an airport lounge.

As Baker wrote:

“History needs to know that this happened,” Mr. Barnes said in one of several interviews, his first with a news organization about the episode. “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.”

Barnes gave Baker the names of four still-living people whom he told about his trip shortly after returning and who he said could corroborate his account. They did. But because Connally and Casey are long gone, Baker could go no further. What is clear, however, is that John Connally tried to delay, make that prevent, the release of 52 American hostages to aid Reagan and hurt Carter in the coming election. Their release just minutes after Reagan took his oath of office seems credible evidence that Connally succeeded.

How is this history relevant now?

It’s relevant, because right now Republicans in Congress are using the same tactics, albeit absent the artfulness, sophistication, or secrecy of Bill Casey, to deny an incumbent President any accomplishments that might help in next November’s election. In 1980, it was 52 hostages; in 2024, it’s thousands of migrant families.

Everyone knows we have a serious border crisis with thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children trying to enter the US after long, perilous journeys from Central and South America.² Republicans say it’s all Joe Biden’s fault. He has “opened the border” to them. On 17 January, the House of Representatives approved a resolution condemning the administration’s border and immigration policies. The legislation denounced President Biden’s “open-border policies.”

I investigated that claim just before heading south and, using data from the right-leaning, conservative Cato Institute, showed how Donald Trump, during his presidency, released a greater percentage of migrants into the U.S. than either Barack Obama or Joe Biden. But that inconvenient fact won’t sway anyone who isn’t open to considering it. Facts are only facts if they’re facts that conform to your ideology.

Nonetheless, serious people have been deeply engaged in trying to do what Republicans in the House of Representatives have been clamoring for, but unwilling to do themselves. For the last four months, a bipartisan group of senators, Oklahoma Republican James Lankford, Arizona Independent Kyrsten Sinema, and Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, have labored to create legislation to attack the crisis head on. They have worked with White House involvement, and President Biden has said if the legislation gets to his desk he’ll sign it. House Speaker Mike Johnson, on the other hand, without seeing the proposed legislation, says it’s dead on arrival in the House.

And why is this happening? For the same reason John Connally went to the middle east 43 years ago: to hurt an incumbent President and help the leading opposition candidate.

At least back in 1980, the knife in the back was subtle and kept secret. But not now, not here. Republicans have publicly and proudly proclaimed they can’t give Biden a win prior to the election.  “Let me tell you, I’m not willing to do too damn much right now to help a Democrat and to help Joe Biden’s approval rating,” Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Tex.) told CNN of the emerging border legislation.

Who is really behind the sudden resistance to enacting bipartisan border legislation that conservative Republican James Lankford has spent the last four months of his life developing? Why Donald Trump, of course. When Lankford and his colleagues announced they had a deal and would propose it formally “soon,” Trump, though he had long demanded that Congress “change our old, broken, ridiculous, weak immigration laws,” now panned the very idea, saying “a border deal now would be another gift to the radical left Democrats.” Trump’s hypocrisy doesn’t seem to bother anyone of Republican persuasion — at least, not enough that they’ll say so.

Back in October, President Biden requested $13.6 billion in emergency funding for border protection, including the hiring of 1,300 additional Border Patrol agents and 1,600 asylum officers. Delays in asylum determinations can take many years, allow large numbers of migrants to remain in America waiting for decisions on their status, and are a huge problem the new legislation aims at fixing, as Senator Sinema detailed on yesterdays morning news shows. Biden also asked for more funds to counter fentanyl smuggling, but because of Republicans’ objections in the House, Congress still hasn’t approved a penny for any of his requests. Doing so might make the President look good.

Last night, the Senate released the anticipated legislation, a $118 billion package. It faces a test vote this coming week. Conservatives vowed to defeat it.

This border horrendoma, as well as the reluctance of House Republicans to defend Ukraine, is emblematic of our current world standing. Our insulated, isolated, spinning-in-place politicians, driven only by an insatiable thirst for power and advancement, have become blind to what this is doing to America’s place in the world. They are either stupidly clueless, or simply no longer care, if they ever did. Some of them, the MAGA cult of Trump, give me the impression they couldn’t find the ground if they fell out of a tree.

MAGA Republicans in the House of Representatives believe that if we seal the southern border we will protect the nation from an influx of people who do not look like them. They also believe we are wasting our precious resources in defending Ukraine and that we should let nature take its course in eastern Europe. They do not understand that American security is inseparable from the security of our global partners.

Last Friday, the Eurasia Group, a world leader in political risk analysis and consulting, published its annual Top Risks analysis. Of all the risks facing the world in 2024, Russia, Ukraine, Israel, and Hamas, to name a few, the Group’s number one global risk is: “The United States vs. Itself.” The Report says, “The 2024 election will test American democracy to a degree the nation hasn’t experienced in 150 years.”

Is the Eurasia Group correct in painting a dark picture? The Group calls 2024, “The Voldemort of years. The annus horribilis. The year that must not be named.”

Whatever you want to call 2024, the word “terrifying” springs to my mind. I wonder what Ben Barnes would say about it?


¹ In mid-November, 11 of the hostages were freed in a CIA operation made famous in the movie Argo. That left 52 hostages still in Iranian hands.

² If you’re interested in reliable analysis about our immigration issues, I highly recommend Peter Rousmaniere’s Working Immigrants blog. Rousmaniere has been studying and writing about this since 2006.