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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  "Christmas Gift" from North Korea Arrives Today
      •  Trott Says Trump "Unfit for Office"
      •  The Paradox of Choice
      •  "Tío Bernie" Leads Among Latino Voters
      •  Is Amy Klobuchar Surging?
      •  Christmas in Washington
      •  I Am Not a Crook: A Look at History's Most Scandalous Scandals, Part IX

To our readers who celebrate Christmas: Merry Christmas! And to those who are in the midst of celebrating Hanukkah: Chag Urim Sameach! For those who will commemorate Kwanzaa, starting tomorrow: Kwanzaa blessings to you and yours!

"Christmas Gift" from North Korea Arrives Today

Well, not literally, we hope. A few weeks back, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un promised a "Christmas gift" for the United States. Today, assuming he sticks to his guns (or to his bombs), we may learn exactly what he meant by that. The overwhelming consensus is that he means: (1) another long-range missile test, or (2) a new, hardline position on nuclear arms in which all negotiations with the United States are ended, or (3) both of these things.

Awaiting Kim's big unveiling, Donald Trump was a mix of jovial and unconcerned about the North Korean's plans. "I may get a vase. I may get a nice present from him. You don't know. You never know," Trump joked. He followed that with: "[W]e'll find out what the surprise is and we'll deal with it very successfully. Everybody's got surprises for me, but let's see what happens. I handle them as they come along."

Trump's response here is not surprising, because there really aren't many other options available for him. He could bluster, but that probably won't come until Kim actually does whatever it is he's going to do. Still, make no mistake, this is a disaster for the President. When he first began making nice with Kim, anyone and everyone warned him that the North Korean leader is a snake and can't be trusted. But the President ignored all of that and gave Kim a lot—recognition, the prestige of the presidency, photo-ops, other propaganda opportunities—while getting absolutely nothing. Indeed, the situation is certainly worse now than when Barack Obama left office, if for no other reason than the South Koreans don't quite trust the U.S. anymore.

It is quite clear that Trump knows that his signature foreign policy "accomplishment"—in fact, his only foreign policy "accomplishment" that might impress voters outside of his base—has gone up in smoke. He used to brag constantly about his relationship with Kim, and his imminent Nobel Prize, especially at his rallies. Now, not a peep on those subjects. That's viable as long as the President has 100% control of the narrative, but eventually there is going to be a Democrat running against him, as well as several debates (assuming Trump shows up). It won't be so easy to avoid this subject, especially since Trump has given everyone such convenient reminders of his ham-fisted approach to the whole thing:

Trump and Kim shake hands at their first summit

Trump and Kim walk together in North Korea

Those images may just show up in one or two Democratic campaign ads next year.

If Kim fires a missle that can reach the U.S. mainland, Trump doesn't have a lot of good options. More sanctions? Sure, but there isn't much trade between the U.S. and North Korea anyway. There is one potential pressure point, however: North Korea gets all of its oil from China, and if China turned off the supply the North Korean economy would grind to a halt in weeks. But China is not going to do Trump any favors unless it gets something really big in return, like abolition of all tariffs and a Senate-ratified treaty to keep it that way. Trump will never buy that, so strike the one option that would instantly get Kim's undivided attention. (Z)

Trott Says Trump "Unfit for Office"

Former representative Dave Trott, who was elected to Congress from the state of Michigan, was among the Republicans who decided that two years in a Trump-led Washington were enough, and so retired prior to last year's election. This week, Trott has been the subject of a New York Times article focused on how the President took over (and, in Trott's view, ruined) the Republican Party, and he has also published a letter in The Atlantic. In the latter, the former Representative goes for the throat of the current President:

...I will now have to consider voting for a Democrat: High unemployment, a stagnating economy, and massive debt for a few years are better than alienating the rest of our allies, getting into a nuclear war with Iran, or allowing 10,000 Islamist soldiers to be set free in Syria.

Trump is psychologically, morally, intellectually, and emotionally unfit for office. We can only hope Congress impeaches and removes him so we have a choice between two adults in 2020.

In short, in case you missed it, Trott is not a fan.

Needless to say, one former congressman can easily be dismissed as a malcontent, or a sore loser, or whatever. However, we've been seeing a lot of this sort of pushback from former officeholders this week (like former senator Jeff Flake), as well as from some evangelical Christians (like the Christianity Today op-ed). Every time one of these folks speaks up, it potentially gives other doubters permission to entertain their doubts, or even to verbalize them.

Put another way, one of the main storylines of 2020 will be exactly how many prominent folks from Trump-friendly demographics (Republican officeholders, evangelicals, Southerners, former generals) decide to announce "enough is enough." Obviously, a sitting senator or representative would be particularly damaging, particularly if that person is not retiring in 2020. A former Trump administration insider, say John Kelly or Kirstjen Nielsen, would also be troublesome for him. It's entirely possible that there is no more pushback, and this month's rebellions are just a blip on the radar. Possible, but that's not usually how these things work. (Z)

The Paradox of Choice

There is, of course, much anxiety among Democrats right now, as they look at the field of candidates that the Party has put forward. This brings to mind some of the real train wreck candidacies of the past. Did Democrats in 1952 and 1984 realize what they were setting themselves up for when they coalesced behind Adlai Stevenson and Walter Mondale, respectively? Did Republicans foresee what was coming in 1964 or 1996, with Barry Goldwater and Bob Dole? Were the voters of those parties just as antsy in those years as Democrats are this year? More so?

Certainly, we can all agree that a Democratic frontrunner with the following liabilities does not inspire much confidence:

  • From the left, his main Democratic opponent attacked him for supporting too many Republican ideas, with her supporters taking to Twitter to signal their agreement.

  • Also from the left, criticism that he's too much a part of "the system" and thus unable to bring about meaningful change.

  • From the right, his would-be Republican opponent slammed him for not being sufficiently Christian and for being out of touch, with his supporters taking to Twitter to signal their agreement.

  • Also from the right, he was flayed for being too liberal by GOP members of the U.S. Senate. "He has adopted the position of every liberal interest group in this country, as best I can tell," said one of them.

  • And then, there are the very sizable number of high-profile verbal gaffes that have found their way onto YouTube, where they have been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, and will undoubtedly live forever.

  • And, lest we forget, he's also been accused of plagiarism.

  • When polled, nearly 40% of voters said they don't think he's qualified to be president. More than a third of Democratic respondents said he's their least-favorite Democratic candidate.

  • On a similar note, there are also the questions about his age, and whether he's outside the window where one can be an effective president.

It's a pretty grim profile. Too lefty for the right-wingers, too righty for the left-wingers, prone to both forced and unforced errors, and simply not fit for the presidency in the eyes of many voters. And yet, it is possible that someone could overcome these weaknesses and win an election. Maybe even two of them. We're sure of it, in fact. At this point, maybe you've figured out our game. Or, if you clicked on any of the links, you've definitely figured it out. Every single one of these refers to Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. That would be the same Barack Obama who is now seen by Democrats as basically the perfect candidate, the gold standard that none of the 2016 field can measure up to.

That brings us to The Paradox of Choice—Why More Is Less, by behavioral psychologist Barry Schwartz. The book explores a lot of different aspects of the choices that people make, but the main thesis (as you might guess from the title) is that when faced with several good—or, at very least, acceptable—alternatives, folks often respond in maladaptive ways. In particular, people tend to struggle to commit to an option. And, once they do, they tend to focus on what things they have lost by choosing, rather than what they have gained.

A simple example is this: dinnertime has arrived, and the decision has been made to go out to a restaurant. As everyone knows, there are a lot of restaurants in the world, and picking one is often very difficult. Eventually, the choice is made to go to, say, Olive Garden. That's not necessarily a choice we would recommend, but at least they are a national chain, and so will be familiar to most readers. What The Paradox of Choice predicts is that many folks, as they peruse the list of Italian dishes, will be thinking, "You know, pasta is very caloric, and tends to give me heartburn. I really wish we'd gone to a seafood restaurant, where I could order a dish heavy on lean protein."

These cognitive tendencies may just help us better understand the dynamics we've seen in the primaries this year, and in the last few cycles. In both 2012 and 2016, the GOP put forward a large group of candidates, each with some distinctive strengths and weaknesses. And, as everyone remembers, a Ben Carson or a Herman Cain or a Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) or a Michele Bachmann would rise to the top of the heap, and then would fall back to the pack, presumably as many of their would-be supporters began to dwell on the downsides of their decision.

The same thing has happened with the Democrats this cycle, albeit less aggressively, as Joe Biden has been a pretty clear-cut frontrunner since he threw his hat into the ring. However, the tradeoff there for the blue team (and this was also true in 2016, and in 2008, as we show above) is intense focus on the candidate's weaknesses, as many of those who have hitched themselves to his (or her) wagon experience what is, in effect, buyer's remorse.

The Paradox of Choice may also help us to understand what has happened with Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-MA) polling numbers, which rose—peaking in October—and then fell thereafter. Recall this table that we first published three weeks ago, in which we showed Warren's and Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-VT) polling averages by month (we're now able to add December to the list):

Month Sanders Avg. Warren Avg. Combined
December 19.0% 15.6% 34.6%
November 17.6% 17.8% 35.4%
October 16.1% 22.4% 38.5%
September 17.1% 19.8% 36.9%
August 16.7% 16.0% 32.6%
July 15.0% 14.5% 29.5%
June 16.3% 12.1% 28.4%
May 17.6% 8.4% 26.0%
April 20.2% 7.3% 27.5%
March 23.3% 6.3% 29.6%
February 21.3% 6.7% 28.0%
January 14.6% 5.6% 20.3%

When we first ran this, it was in answer to the question of whether or not Sanders' heart attack (which became public in the first week of October) caused him to lose supporters to Warren, which he then regained once it was clear his health was ok. That is obviously not the case; for 8 months now, his support has remained basically steady at 17% +/- 2%. He neither lost significant support in October, nor regained it in November.

On the other hand, Warren did see a noticeable surge around the time of the heart attack. This would be tough to prove, because not all pollsters allow respondents to choose "undecided," but we suspect that what happened is that some folks who were having trouble choosing between "progressive" options suddenly had their choice made for them, since it seemed that Sanders' campaign might be coming to an end. So, they jumped onto the S.S. Warren, experienced "buyer's remorse," and were prime candidates to return to the undecided column once it became clear that Sanders was ok, and that there in fact was still a choice between progressives.

Anyhow, this is all just an idea for consideration. The one thing that is clear, however, is that there is no such thing as a perfect candidate (or a near-perfect one), and anyone who looks back fondly on a Barack Obama, or a Bill Clinton, or a Ronald Reagan and wonders why we don't have candidates like that anymore is viewing the past through rose-colored glasses. Those fellows all had significant flaws as candidates, and they won the White House nonetheless. That's not to say that the imperfections of a Joe Biden or an Elizabeth Warren or a Bernie Sanders or a Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend) should be ignored, merely that they shouldn't be overstated. (Z)

"Tío Bernie" Leads Among Latino Voters

In case you hadn't noticed, Bernie Sanders is about as white as it gets. Indeed, he helpfully reminded everyone of that fact at the last Democratic debate. And yet, an interesting trend began emerging about six months ago, and it has lasted long enough that it can no longer be called a fluke: He's become the preferred candidate of Latino voters. See, for example, the recent polls from Latino decisions and The Los Angeles Times, which both peg the Senator's support among Latinos at about 33%.

What is going on here? There are a number of theories, some of them more rooted in hard evidence than others:

  • Latino voters appreciate Sanders' authenticity
  • They also admire that he was once poor, and pulled himself up by his bootstraps
  • Sanders has made a point of hiring over 100 Latino and Latina staffers, and waging serious outreach efforts
  • Latino voters skew young, and young is Sanders' wheelhouse
  • He's campaigned heavily with Latino and Latina officeholders, particularly Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who might be the most popular Latino or Latina politician in the country

In any event, the real question is whether or not this could work significantly to Sanders' advantage in the primaries. More specifically, whether it might put him in a position to spring a few surprises on his rivals. And the answer is: maybe. Generally speaking, Latino turnout is pretty low in primary elections. If Sanders can overcome that, and attract an unusually high number of Latino voters to the polls, he might do unexpectedly well in the Southwestern states, particularly Nevada (primary/caucus #4) and California and Texas (Super Tuesday states).

To whatever extent Sanders has success with Latino voters, it will come mostly at the expense of Joe Biden, the other candidate who is popular with Latinos (25% or so favor him). Biden does not want to lose a demographic he had been counting on, nor does he want any unpleasant surprises in February or March. So, he's doing what he can to fight back, pursuing endorsements from high-profile Latino politicians not named Ocasio-Cortez. On Monday, for example, the Biden campaign announced that it now has the support of Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA), an influential member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Anyhow, this is a dynamic worth keeping an eye on. (Z)

Is Amy Klobuchar Surging?

Certainly, she and her campaign think so. As she travels around Iowa, following her recent very successful debate performance, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN) is making regular use of the word "insurgency" and is telling anyone and everyone who will listen that she's got gobs of endorsements from prominent Iowans, and that she's on the rise now that the chaff has begun to clear out of the Democratic field.

Is she actually on the rise, though? Well, the polls do bear her out, to some extent. Let's start by looking at the seven polls of Iowa done in October, and everyone who got above 1% in at least one of those polls:

Candidate U. of IA Quinnipiac NY Times Iowa St. U. USA Today Emerson CBS News Average
Elizabeth Warren 23% 20% 22% 28% 17% 23% 22% 22.1%
Joe Biden 15% 15% 17% 12% 18% 23% 22% 17.5%
Pete Buttigieg 16% 19% 18% 20% 13% 16% 14% 16.6%
Bernie Sanders 18% 17% 19% 18% 9% 13% 21% 16.4%
Amy Klobuchar 1% 5% 4% 4% 3% 1% 2% 2.9%
Tom Steyer 3% 3% 2% 3% 3% 2% 3% 2.7%
Andrew Yang 3% 3% 3% 2% 1% 5% 0% 2.4%
Tulsi Gabbard 3% 3% 2% 2% 3% 2% 1% 2.3%
Cory Booker 0% 1% 2% 1% 1% 3% 2% 1.4%

And now, here are the six polls of Iowa done in November and December, once again including everyone who got above 1% in at least one poll:

Candidate Iowa St. U. Emerson Iowa St. U. DM Register CBS News Monmouth Average
Pete Buttigieg 24% 18% 26% 25% 21% 22% 22.7%
Bernie Sanders 21% 22% 18% 15% 22% 13% 18.5%
Joe Biden 15% 23% 12% 15% 22% 19% 17.6%
Elizabeth Warren 18% 12% 19% 16% 18% 18% 16.8%
Amy Klobuchar 4% 10% 5% 6% 5% 5% 5.8%
Andrew Yang 3% 2% 4% 3% 1% 3% 2.7%
Cory Booker 3% 4% 1% 3% 1% 2% 2.33%
Tom Steyer 2% 3% 2% 3% 2% 3% 2.5%
Tulsi Gabbard 3% 2% 2% 3% 0% 2% 2.0%
Michael Bloomberg 0% 2% 1% 2% - 0% 1.0%

If you look at the whole data set, you see that the big story is that Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren have basically swapped places. However, it is also true that Klobuchar is on the rise, having doubled her average from October. Her staff is very hopeful that, when all is said and done, she can put up a fourth-place finish in Iowa.

And now, let us rain on the Senator's parade. While she's definitely making a move at the right time, there are many reasons to believe that the move is not especially significant:

  • What is the plausible path that gets Klobuchar up to fourth place? It's true that she's doubled her support in Iowa, but it's also true that she remains much closer to the also-rans than to the frontrunners. She would need to triple (or nearly triple) her support from where it is right now in order to jump into fourth place. That's a big ask in a little over five weeks, especially since the percentage of the vote controlled by the four frontrunners remains very steady, and the only real movement on that front is from Warren to Buttigieg.

  • A fourth-place finish in Iowa, even if Klobuchar pulls it off, is not going to net very many (or any) delegates. If you hover over the map above, you'll be reminded that Iowa is going to award only 27 delegates on Feb. 3. And, as with every other state, the cutoff for collecting delegates in each precinct is 15%. It's possible that she might make a dent in a town that is somewhat urban, but also somewhat rural, like Ames. But if she walks away from Iowa with more delegates than she has hands, that would be a near-miracle.

  • Meanwhile, history does not predict kind things for fourth- or fifth-place finishers in Iowa. Since the Iowa caucuses moved to the front of the line in 1972, only one fourth-place finisher has gone on to claim the Democratic nomination. That was Bill Clinton in 1992, when things were wonky because native son Tom Harkin sucked up most of the votes (76%), while another 12% of the electorate was uncommitted. There has also been only one third-place finisher to get the nomination, and that was George McGovern in 1972, another wonky year in which "uncommitted" finished in first place with 36% of the vote. Nobody has ever finished fifth or worse in Iowa and gotten the Democratic (or the Republican) presidential nomination.

  • No matter how well Klobuchar does in Iowa, things are looking grim for her in the next three states. On average, she finishes in 8th place in polls of New Hampshire and Nevada, and 10th place in polls of South Carolina. Whatever momentum she gets coming out of Iowa will dissipate after two or three disastrously bad showings. And while it's true that some of the other Democrats might drop out, the non-frontrunners just don't have enough support to make a difference. If we imagine, for example, that Klobuchar consolidates all of the folks who are currently supporting Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Andrew Yang, and Julián Castro, she would still be in 4th place in Nevada and South Carolina and 5th place in New Hampshire, and well below the 15% delegate line.

  • The list of Super Tuesday states does not offer much hope for Klobuchar, either, if she holds on to March 3. Voting on that day are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Democrats Abroad, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia. She will presumably win or do well in her home state of Minnesota, but otherwise the map is just about as unfriendly to her as possible:

    The closest state to Minnesota
that will vote on Super Tuesday is Colorado, which is a good 600 miles away. All the other states are in the South or on the

    No other state that is even faintly Midwestern is up that day.

In short, Klobuchar remains an excellent VP candidate; she probably pairs best with Biden, as she would balance that ticket in terms of age and gender, while shoring it up in the Midwest. But, in the absence of a January surprise, there just isn't a plausible path for her to land the Democratic nomination. (Z)

Christmas in Washington

After a rather more serious Christmas-related item yesterday, we thought it would he good to have something a little lighter today. And after considering various options, we ended up with something we don't normally do: a quiz. There are 12 days of Christmas, according to the song, so we've got 12 questions related to American politics and Christmas; the answers appear at the bottom of the page.

  1. Who was the first president to have a Christmas party in the White House?

    1. George Washington
    2. John Adams
    3. Thomas Jefferson
    4. Andrew Jackson
    5. Abraham Lincoln

  2. And who was the first president to have a Christmas tree in the White House?

    1. John Adams
    2. Andrew Jackson
    3. Abraham Lincoln
    4. Rutherford B. Hayes
    5. Benjamin Harrison

  3. Which president categorically refused to have a White House Christmas tree, and why?

    1. Theodore Roosevelt, due to his commitment to conservation
    2. Woodrow Wilson, as he regarded Christmas trees to be a form of idolatry
    3. Franklin D. Roosevelt, consistent with austerity measures imposed during the Depression and World War II
    4. Dwight D. Eisenhower, because First Lady Mamie Eisenhower was allergic to them
    5. Jimmy Carter, who worried that Christmas trees might seem disrespectful to Americans of other faiths

  4. The idea of having a "showpiece" White House Christmas tree, located in the Blue Room of the White House, is credited to which of these individuals?

    1. Postmaster General (and department store magnate) John Wanamaker
    2. William Howard Taft's children
    3. President Harry S. Truman
    4. The first White House Chief of Staff, John Steelman
    5. First Lady Jackie Kennedy

  5. Since the tradition was established, what state has provided more Blue Room Christmas trees than any other?

    1. Vermont
    2. Pennsylvania
    3. Oregon
    4. North Carolina
    5. California

  6. When Joe Biden was vice president, what was the theme of the ornaments on the official vice-presidential Christmas tree?

    1. Honoring the troops
    2. Products produced in Delaware
    3. Portraits of former vice presidents
    4. The color blue (it's the color of the Democratic Party, Biden is blue-collar, etc.)
    5. Catholic saints

  7. It should come as no surprise that Donald Trump, who likes everything bigly, made a point of breaking the record for having the most White House Christmas trees during his first year as president. How many did the White House have that year?

    1. 14
    2. 25
    3. 33
    4. 41
    5. 100

  8. Which president regularly celebrated Christmas late, and why?

    1. Martin Van Buren; he followed the Dutch tradition of celebrating Sinterklaas on December 29
    2. Abraham Lincoln; he was away from the White House visiting troops during his Christmases in office
    3. Harry S. Truman; many of his family members were police officers who had to work on Christmas
    4. Jimmy Carter; his daughter's birthday is on Christmas Day and he didn't want her to have to share
    5. Ronald Reagan; so that the Secret Service could spend Christmas with their families

  9. Which president had a yearly tradition of reading Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol to his family on Christmas Eve?

    1. Calvin Coolidge
    2. Franklin D. Roosevelt
    3. Richard Nixon
    4. Gerald Ford
    5. Barack Obama

  10. One of the more distinctive White House December traditions, dating back to the 1960s, involves the White House kitchen staff laboring many weeks to create...what?

    1. Over 1,000,000 cookies, to be delivered to the members of Congress and their staffers
    2. A life-size butter sculpture of the sitting president, dressed as Santa Claus
    3. A 300-pound chocolate replica of the White House
    4. An elaborate Christmas-themed cake, generally inspired by a specific Christmas carol
    5. A kosher Hanukkah feast, which is then served to hundreds of Jewish families on the South Lawn

  11. Who is the only president to appear in a Christmas-themed movie before becoming president?

    1. Dwight D. Eisenhower
    2. John F. Kennedy
    3. Ronald Reagan
    4. George W. Bush
    5. Donald Trump

  12. Which of these politics-related things happened on Christmas Eve?

    1. The Ku Klux Klan was formed, in 1865
    2. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was named Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, in 1943
    3. Americans learned Mikhail Gorbachev was overthrown, effectively ending the Cold War, in 1991
    4. George H.W. Bush pardoned half a dozen Iran-Contra figures, in 1992
    5. The U.S. Senate passed the ACA (a.k.a. Obamacare), in 2009

If you don't like scrolling, you can click here to be taken directly to the answers. (Z)

I Am Not a Crook: A Look at History's Most Scandalous Scandals, Part IX

Onward and upward! Here are the previous entries in the series:

Today, it's another very famous one.

  1. The Iran-Contra Affair, 1985-87 ("Ukraine-Contra Affair"): This was a scandal almost a century in the making, as the story properly begins in 1908. By that year, it was clear that while coal had been the predominant fuel source of the 19th century, oil would be the predominant fuel source of the 20th. This was something of a problem for the world's leading power, the United Kingdom, as they have plenty of coals in Newcastle, but not a lot of natural oil reserves. To rectify this the British government negotiated with the Iranian government to form the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), which was to provide a regular supply of petroleum from the then-newly discovered oil field in Masjed Soleiman. APOC was eventually renamed as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and then as the British Petroleum Company (BP).

    The arrangement went swimmingly for nearly half a century, until the government of Mohammad Mosaddegh came to power in Iran. He believed (with good reason) that the prices being paid by the Brits were well below market value, and that the Iranians were thus getting the short end of the dipstick. So, Mosaddegh nationalized BP in 1952, and advised that the price of Iranian oil would be going way up. The British did not care to pay the higher price, but were also still in the process of recovering from World War II, and so were not in a great position to "solve" the problem themselves. They are experts in the art of manipulating the United States, however, so they convinced the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration that Mosaddegh was a communist puppet, and a threat to truth, justice, and the American way. The CIA sent Kermit Roosevelt Jr., grandson of Theodore, to arrange a coup. This was known as Operation Ajax, and it worked; in 1953, the legally elected Mosaddegh administration was forced out of power, and the leadership of the country devolved upon Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. If you'd like to read more about this real-life cloak and dagger story, consider picking up a copy of All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. The part where the Shah is snuck into the governmental palace in the trunk of Roosevelt's car is particularly intriguing.

    Anyhow, the Shah's rule proved to be unpopular with many segments of the Iranian population, for many different reasons. To start, he, his family, and his inner circle lived high on the hog while much of the country was living in abject poverty. On top of that, there was much corruption, along with violent suppression of political dissent by the Iranian intelligence agency SAVAK. Thousands were thrown in prison without a trial; many others did not live long enough to make it to prison. The Shah also undertook an aggressive campaign of modernization and secularization that did not sit well with the country's Shi'a clergy.

    In 1979, the people of Iran decided they'd had enough, and they overthrew the Shah. He and his family fled the country, and sought asylum and medical treatment in the United States, which had been propping up Pahlavi all along. The Jimmy Carter administration did not particularly want to get involved, but prominent Republicans—most notably Henry Kissinger—put the screws to the President, and threatened that they would scuttle the SALT II arms-limitation treaty if Carter did not play ball. Needless to say, this did not please the Iranian Revolutionary government, and in response they invaded the American embassy in Tehran and took 52 hostages. This incident, and in particular the story of the six embassy employees who evaded capture, is dramatized in the Best Picture-winning drama Argo (although that movie takes great liberties with the facts, even by the standards of Hollywood). Anyhow, the Carter administration tried unsuccessfully to negotiate for the release of the hostages, and then tried to take them back by force during the disastrous Operation Eagle Claw, the failure of which effectively guaranteed that the peanut farmer would not be reelected.

    The Shah died on July 27, 1980, which meant that there was no actual demand for the United States government left to fulfill, even if it had been inclined to do so. Ultimately, the Iranian government released the hostages after 444 days, granting them freedom on the same day (and at nearly the same time) that Ronald Reagan took the oath of office. Exactly why the Iranians chose this timing has been a matter of much speculation, and more than one well-placed person has suggested that the incoming Reagan administration was pulling strings behind the scenes (with VP and veteran diplomat George H. W. Bush as intermediary). No hard evidence in support of these theories has ever been found, however. Or, if it has been found, it hasn't been made public.

    When Reagan campaigned for the presidency, his foreign policy platform was dominated by his deep and abiding hatred of communism. He was, of course, very much focused on the Soviet Union, which would soon be in its death throes. He was also fixated on the ongoing civil war in Nicaragua, in which the Contras were trying to overthrow the government of the Sandinistas. Reagan asserted that the Sandinistas were communists (actually, they were socialists), and that the Contras were very much like the founding fathers (dubious; George Washington & Co. never suborned torture, rape, and the murder of civilians). Anyhow, the Democrats suspected that Reagan would probably try to use the CIA to muck around in Nicaragua, and so when the Blue Team regained control of Congress in the 1982 midterms, they passed the Boland Amendment, which placed significant limitations on U.S. government involvement in Nicaragua. Reagan signed the law, though he apparently didn't read it, given what came later.

    Another major element of Reagan's foreign policy, especially during the 1980 campaign, was to take a hard line with the Iranian government and with any terrorist groups who supported that government. He complained that Jimmy Carter's policy toward Iran had been feckless, and said that he (Reagan) would approach the situation from a position of strength, and he would never negotiate with terrorists. This was entirely consistent with U.S. law, as an embargo had been imposed on Iran in response to the Shah's overthrow. It was also, to use the technical term preferred by historians, a lie. Although the Iranian government had released the embassy hostages, the Iranian-aligned terrorist group Hezbollah began taking American hostages in 1982; the total number eventually reached seven. Reagan felt empathy for these Americans, but he also realized this was a black eye for his administration, and so his team regularly negotiated with Hezbollah (i.e., terrorists) and the Iranian government to try to get them back.

    Meanwhile, during Reagan's first year in office, his administration had begun to subvert the Iranian embargo and to sell arms to that nation's government. The popular understanding is that the arms were being sold in exchange for the hostages, but this is not the case, as the arms sales (1981) predated the Hezbollah hostage-taking (1982). The exact purpose of the arms sales has never been fully and clearly explained; it's possible that the administration thought (naively) that it was giving encouragement to a moderate faction in the Iranian government. It's also possible there was a quid pro quo, and that the arms were payment for the release of the 52 embassy hostages in 1980. We will likely never know for certain. What is certain, however, is that the arms sales were illegal and also ran entirely contrary to Reagan's campaign rhetoric.

    The arms sales continued for five years, until journalists blew the lid off the scandal on Nov. 3, 1986. Which publication did it, you might ask? Maybe The New York Times or the Washington Post? Nope, not them. Was The New Yorker in the hard news business back then? How old is Ronan Farrow, anyhow? Well, in any case, it wasn't The New Yorker, either. Nope, it was the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa, which was tipped off by an Iranian whistleblower named Mehdi Hashemi. Hashemi may well have been acting as an agent for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, many of whom feared the arms-to-Iran scheme had gotten out of control. Whatever Hashemi's motivation was, the Iranian government executed him for his apostasy.

    It was, of course, pretty bad that the Reagan administration had illegally sold weapons to Iran—about $30 million worth. However, as Congress and law enforcement began to look into the matter, things got worse. Pretty quickly, it was discovered that the majority of that money could not be accounted for. In late November, National Security Council staffer Lt. Col. Oliver North came forward and said he knew where the missing money had gone: to Nicaragua, to help the Contras. He and National Security Adviser Admiral John Poindexter had personally taken care of the transfers. North was told to produce any documentation he had, but said that immediately before coming forward, he had shredded most of it, assisted by his secretary.

    In short, then, there were a lot of very serious crimes here. Among them:

    • The sale of arms to Iran, in contravention of the embargo
    • The funneling of money to the Contras, in contravention of the Boland Amendment
    • Destruction of evidence
    • NSC involvement in the implementation of U.S. foreign policy. As the members of the NSC are not subject to Senate confirmation, they are supposed to act only in an advisory capacity.

    One could argue that any one of these offenses is more serious than what Richard Nixon did during the Watergate scandal. Taken as a group, they are most certainly worse.

    In the short term, there was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Senator John Tower (R-TX) led a commission (the aptly named Tower Commission) to look into the matter; they took testimony from all of the key figures involved, including President Reagan. Though other Iran-Contra figures said that both the President and the Vice President were fully aware of the scheme, Reagan said he just did not recall. Eventually, North, Poindexter, and 10 others (though not Reagan or Bush) were indicted and convicted of various felony-level offenses. Only one of the 12, an unlucky fellow named Thomas Clines, actually served any time. The rest had their convictions vacated, or were pardoned by Bush once he took office. When it came to sneaking the pardons in under the radar, and to otherwise sweeping Iran-Contra under the rug, President Bush was aided by his attorney general, a fellow named Bill Barr.

    As to the long-term effects, the Iran-Contra affair certainly contributed to the longstanding enmity between the Iranians and the United States in general, and between the Iranians and the Republican Party in particular. Given that Donald Trump's entire political worldview was formed and then set in stone in the 1980s, it's no surprise that he loathes the Iranians. Meanwhile, the GOP also learned that they could get away with just about anything, as long as they remained unified and kept a smile on their faces. Nobody involved in the whole sordid affair, excepting Clines, suffered any particular harm from their involvement. North, for example, went onto a long and successful career as a political commentator and lobbyist. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan left office as one of the most popular presidents in modern U.S. history.

Next scandal up: The Keating Five. (Z)

Quiz Answers

  1. B. John Adams. Washington did not celebrate Christmas in the White House because the building was not completed until after his term was over. Further, he did not much care for Christmas, as he associated it with a severe and almost fatal bout of illness he suffered as a young man, and also with the death of his stepson Jacky.

  2. E. Benjamin Harrison. Christmas was a holiday of only moderate importance in the United States until the Victorian Era, which is when many of the trappings of the holiday (Santa Claus, Christmas stockings, Christmas carols, etc.) were widely adopted. Though the Christmas tree tradition was brought to North America by German soldiers during the Revolutionary War, it did not really catch on until Godey's Lady's Book printed this engraving of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert trimming their Christmas tree in 1850; the magazine became a firm promoter of Christmas trees thereafter (which may just have been related to the many logging-industry advertisers they had). It took until 1889 for the custom to reach the White House.

  3. A. Theodore Roosevelt. Nobody can say that TR didn't practice what he preached. That said, his son Archibald snuck a tree into the White House once or twice, and hid it in an upstairs closet. Note also that Carter really was worried about excluding folks of other faiths, but he resolved that (as best he could) by establishing the national menorah in 1979.

  4. B. William Howard Taft's children. The President and First Lady had to make a December trip to Panama in 1912, and their kids decided to surprise them with a fabulous tree on their return. 50 years later, Jackie Kennedy contributed the idea of giving the Blue Room tree an official theme.

  5. D. North Carolina, with 13. It's reasonably close to Washington, it's verdant, and it was represented for 30 years by Jesse Helms, a well-connected senator who knew how to get a little free publicity for one of his home state's major business concerns. The same things are true of second-place Pennsylvania, source of 11 Blue Room trees, except replace "Jesse Helms" with "Arlen Specter."

  6. C. Portraits of former vice presidents. There's a picture of Jill Biden posing in front of the tree here, if you care to see for yourself. From bottom to top, you can see behind her Nelson Rockefeller, Joe Biden, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Martin Van Buren.

  7. D. 41, along with another 40 Christmas-themed topiaries. There are 132 rooms in the White House, 35 of which are bathrooms. So, that means that there was an average of almost one Christmas tree or topiary for every non-bathroom room.

  8. E. Ronald Reagan; so that the Secret Service could spend Christmas with their families. Kudos to the Gipper for his thoughfulness! Incidentally, the answer about Martin Van Buren is correct, except that Sinterklaas is celebrated before Christmas and not after, on December 6.

  9. B. Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR was a huge Dickens fan, and it was a family activity that could be done by someone largely confined to a wheelchair.

  10. C. A 300-pound chocolate replica of the White House. Though frankly, we'd kinda like to see the butter sculpture. Anyhow, if you would like to see what a chocolate replica of the White House looks like, you can view the 2009 version here (it's made of white chocolate, obviously). They also create an ornate gingerbread house every year, though the subject of that one changes annually. In 1995, for example, they re-created First Lady Hillary Clinton's childhood home.

  11. E. Donald Trump, who had a cameo in Home Alone 2. Why did he have a cameo, you may ask? Because part of the movie was set in the Plaza Hotel, then owned by Trump, and Trump had a standing requirement that any movie using one of his properties had to include a part for him. He had parts in the movies Zoolander, Ghosts Can't Do It, 54, and Scent of a Woman for the same reason, although you can only see his scene in the latter if you buy the DVD and watch the outtakes, as it was cut from the release. The obvious answer to this question is "Ronald Reagan," but while he did appear in Christmas-themed television episodes, he never did a Christmas-themed movie.

  12. All are correct. It's Christmas, so it seems apropos that everyone should finish with a right answer!

That was a pretty tough quiz, written by someone with vast experience writing plausible (but incorrect) multiple-choice answers. If you got as many as five right, you should be pretty impressed with yourself.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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