BACK IN THE NEWS
The Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1980, which forms the backdrop of my debut novel Escaping the Whale, refuses to go away. Recently, it has been back in the news. A former Republican politician, Ben Barnes, has come forth with a sort of confession. His revelation that he was part of a mission to influence the presidential election and help Reagan win by trying to get the release of the hostages delayed adds a new dimension to the politics behind the hostage crisis.
In both of my novels, events of the times influence the life of my protagonist, Marcia Gold. In The Whale Surfaces, which begins when Marcia is eleven and ends when she is 22, the years spanned are 1963 to 1974, and some of the events at the time include the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and of Robert Kennedy. It also included the Six-Day War in Israel, the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, and the deaths of students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State. All these are mentioned in the book. Marcia, as a child and then a young adult, is aware of these events and takes them very seriously. She is super-sensitive to frightening stories.
In Escaping the Whale, in which Marcia is 28-years old and working as a guidance counselor in a high school, it is 1980. During this time, the major news story was the Iranian hostage crisis. The hostage situation permeates the atmosphere and the conversations between Marcia and her peers. It also reinforces Marcia's personal fears and trauma as she subconsciously connects the hostage-takers with the Nazis who persecuted her family in Europe. She also identifies with being a hostage as she is hostage to her own inner demons and connects with the feeling of vulnerability the hostage story engenders.
In both novels, I have striven to show that individuals can easily be affected by events in the news. Sensitive people especially absorb many of the news stories and events into their psyches, and their attitudes and beliefs are influenced by them. I believe we are all influenced by the times in which we live and the events that take place, even if those events do not affect us directly.
Nov. 1979: The embassy takeover and burning of American flag by Iranians
In the writing of both books, I searched my own memory of these events and conducted research on those periods. All of that memory and research have come back to me with the recent report regarding the revelation by Ben Barnes, a former politician from Texas, that he had gone on a mission to the Middle East with former Texas governor John B. Connally, Jr. during the presidential campaign when Ronald Reagan was running against incumbent President Jimmy Carter.
According to Barnes, now 84, he and Connally met with Arab leaders and tried to convince them to influence the Iranians to hold off releasing the hostages until after the election. If Reagan wins, they supposedly told the leaders, Iran will get a "better deal." Of course, if the hostages are released while Carter is still president, Carter could get re-elected, and Barnes and Connally were obviously trying to prevent that. Barnes claims that William Casey, who was at the time the chairman of the Reagan campaign, was briefed on these meetings.
There is a great deal that is unknown, such as whether or not the Arab leaders did reach out to the Iranians with this message, and if they did, whether or not it had any effect on them. It is also not known if Reagan himself knew about this or was even part of the planning.
In Escaping the Whale, everyone watches the nightly news shows for updates on the hostage situation. "America Held Hostage!" blares from television screens as the title of these broadcasts. I personally remember the eerie feeling this announcement, in an ominous voice, cast into our living room from the TV screen every evening and the mesmerizing effect it had.
In my novel, Marcia and her friends and colleagues discuss the reasons this event has taken such a hold on the imagination of the nation. They conclude that it is the first time the U.S. is at the mercy of another country and faced with the arbitrary cruelty and hatred of the people of that other country. The fact that the United States can be vulnerable is very frightening, especially to the teenagers at the high school where Marcia works, who have grown up believing in the strength and invincibility of the U.S. Characters in the book also note that the crisis has united Americans as they all share the fascination, horror, anger, and fear provoked by the continuous stream of hostage-related news. Everyone, of all ages, seems to be affected by the crisis.
Perhaps this feeling of being inundated with news stories was a precursor to the internet age we deal with today.
A New York Times headline on Thursday, March 23rd, reads: "Former Iran Hostages Divided on Carter Legacy and a Sabotage Claim." Interviews with some of the former hostages reveal a range of reactions to the Ben Barnes story. Barry Rosen, one of the hostages who is mentioned in my book, stated that Mr. Barnes should have come forward with this information 43 years ago.
"It's nice that Mr. Barnes is trying to soothe his soul during the last years of his life," Mr. Rosen stated. "But for the hostages who went through hell, he has not helped us at all."
There had been speculation about some type of dirty work behind the scenes but nothing definitive was previously known. Realizing that the Carter administration might have been able to get the hostages freed earlier without this interference is, to some of the hostages, infuriating. Rosen calls it "treason."
Another former hostage, Kathryn Koob, declared that "if someone wanted to be so cruel as to use us for political gain, that's on their conscience." John Limbert, another former hostage, claims that it is confirmation of what they suspected all along. He recognizes that President Carter was blamed for the crisis because he admitted the Shah to the United States and failed to evacuate the American Embassy before that. But Limbert still praised Carter for being patient during the crisis.
Another former hostage, David M. Roeder, added, "I gained a great deal more respect for President Carter because I've seen what he went through with us in captivity." He also does not believe Reagan knew anything about this mission.
After the election, Carter's outgoing administration released billions of dollars of frozen Iranian assets. According to Rosen, those assets were "the weapon that kept us alive." He credits Carter with getting the hostages freed "without us getting murdered." Mr. Lambert agrees, stating, "He basically sacrificed his presidency to get us out alive."
Not all the former hostages agree. Kevin Hermening claims that the mullahs hated Carter so much that they were never going to release the hostages while he was President. Mr. Cooke concurs, insisting that the Iranians were afraid of Reagan and released the hostages because he was elected.
Why did Barnes come forward now? Of course, President Carter is clearly nearing the end of his life and this has apparently influenced Mr. Barnes, who has explained that "history needs to know that this happened."
After two days of newspaper reporting on Barnes's account, the story seems to have died down. The reaction is a giant yawn. Is the American public so cynical about behind-the-scenes political maneuvering that this is a big nothing, just another example of the usual dirty tricks, of anything goes?
Watergate has been blamed for increasing cynicism about politics among the American population. These revelations by Barnes will certainly fit right in with the cynicism and disgust people feel about political maneuvering. But it also proves, once again, how the Iranian hostage crisis touched a nerve for Americans. We are still interested in it; we still want to know what and how something so unimaginable could have happened. The success of the movie Argo attests to the hold this story has kept on the American psyche.
Of course, it would be unrealistic to believe that politics, even in a democracy, could be free of secret, back-channel deals. Yet the pain of this hostage crisis, not only to the hostages and their families but to the American public, will apparently not leave us any time soon. Something shocking about the event and all that Americans saw and learned through it has wormed its way into our national and individual consciousness.
The news reports about Ben Barnes have certainly taken us back there. I know I will never forget the endless news updates and the nervous worry so many of us felt. Moreover, I can never forget the details about the cruelty of the Shah's reign through Savak that suddenly became special features on news shows. Americans became enlightened as to the differences between our system and Iran's, and it was a shock. It put the Iranian anger into perspective for many Americans. Perhaps it made some of us prouder and more appreciative of our system and more determined to protect it. Perhaps it made others more fed up with the human race. Whatever effect it had, the Ben Barnes story is part of a larger story that is still with us, for so many reasons.