We’ve all heard that old droner attributed to Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yet remembering the past has seldom proven a surefire preventative for not fouling up all over again, otherwise Wile E. Coyote wouldn’t keep smacking into a tunnel painted on the side of the hill. No, comedian Peter Cook was probably closer to the mark when, asked in a “Pete and Dud” sketch by partner Dudley Moore, “Would you say you’ve learned from your mistakes?,” he answered confidently, “Oh, certainly, certainly. I’ve learned from my mistakes, and I am sure I can repeat them exactly.”
Season Two of Fiasco, the podcast series devoted to resurrecting and explicating political train wrecks of the recent past (its first season covered the Bush vs. Gore Florida re-count travesty of 2000), escorts us down the twisty memory lane of one such mistake destined to be repeated. Like Wondery’s podcast series American Scandal: Iran Contra of 2018, Fiasco reconstructs the Iran-Contra affair of the mid-1980s, the cockamamie scheme that empowered a clandestine crew of clueless amateurs to circumvent the law and conduct backdoor American diplomacy by shipping missiles to Iran via Israel, then using the profits to fund the Contras in Nicaragua to overthrow the Sandinista government. This comedy of errors, a Rube Goldberg machine gone berserk, produced a four-bagger: an international debacle, a political scandal, a Congressional investigation, and criminal indictments.
Sound familiar? Remind you of a more recent cock-up? The parallels with our ongoing Ukraine-gate scandal and its outsourcing of foreign policy and campaign interference to Iran-Contra are inescapable, yet Fiasco’s creator and narrator, Leon Neyfakh; executive producer Andrew Parsons; and producer Madeline Kaplan are careful not to press down too hard on the pedals, letting the listener draw the lessons. The personalities and particulars of Iran-Contra are so strange and boggling that too much editorializing would only get in the way.
For those unfamiliar with Iran-Contra, having been innocently unborn during the painted sunset of Ronald Reagan’s presidency or otherwise out to lunch, Fiasco will provide a brisk, lucid education. It covers a lot of historical turf and converging vectors—the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, the seizing of American hostages at the U.S. Embassy by militant Iranian students supporting the revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini, the violent overthrow of the American-backed Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua by the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the invasion of Grenada by U.S. forces and a Caribbean coalition in 1983 to rescue hundreds of medical students and prevent another hostage crisis—but I never felt my attention flagging, and I can be pretty twitchy with the fast-forward slider.
Telegenic, Blue-Eyed Zealotry
For those of us who followed Iran-Contra at the time like an afternoon soap opera, the podcast conjures so many names from the past, reviving the repertory company that dominated the front pages and evening news shows for months: Secretary of Defense Caspar “Cap” Weinberger; National-Security Adviser Robert “Bud” McFarlane; Vice Admiral John Poindexter, McFarlane’s replacement at the N.S.A.; former air-force major general turned arms dealer Richard V. Secord; and a Macy’s maintenance engineer and escalator repairman named Kevin Kattke, a rough early edition of Lev Parnas, an “idiot savant in foreign affairs,” according to one intelligence staffer.
In his patriotic zeal and thirst for covert intrigue, Kattke had the perfect scoutmaster in (ta-da!) Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, the straight-arrow, square-shouldered decorated Vietnam War hero who lasered his blue-eyed zealotry on the mission at hand while multi-tasking like mad. North would become the telegenic co-star of the scandal when he testified before Congress and seemed to sprout eagle wings for the camera, along with his loyal secretary, Fawn Hall, whose toothy smile and Farrah Fawcett hairstyle caused a flutter whenever she hustled through the corridors of power. That Hall had smuggled documents out of the White House by hiding them under her dress added an erotic dash to the unfolding narrative that Iran-Contra otherwise lacked.
Cap, Bud, Ollie, and Fawn—sounds a merry troupe fit for a Nickelodeon show, full of mischief and high jinks, but the ramifications of all this illegal trading with terrorists and ruthless guerrillas were dire, and the ensuing crisis nearly bled the ruddy bloom from Ronald Reagan’s cheeks in the second term of his Technicolor reign.
That Fawn Hall had smuggled documents out of the White House by hiding them under her dress added an erotic dash to the unfolding narrative that Iran-Contra otherwise lacked.
To Gore Vidal, chief historian of the United States of Amnesia, Iran-Contra was a seriocomic chapter in the continuing story of executive hubris: “Luckily, age and incompetence have saved us from a dictatorship, and the actor himself will soon be gone. But, for a moment, it was a very close thing indeed: A president deliberately tried to overthrow the constitution and place himself outside those laws he had sworn faithfully to execute. In retrospect, all this will seem pretty funny.”
Irony—even irony as silver-polished as Vidal’s—only takes you so far. Listening to Fiasco, Iran-Contra doesn’t seem funny, apart from a few comic highlights, but an augury of worse to come. Age, incompetence, and the falling roof shingles of cognitive decline are once again on display in the Oval Office, but we are nearer to dictatorship than before, the Reality Star in Chief an unhealthy distance from the exit door. Should we survive this coronavirus of a presidency, Fiasco will have a flotilla of fiascoes to recap in the future, with perhaps Hope Hicks following in the tappy footsteps of Fawn Hall.
Pudding Pop, Serial Date-Rapist
The No. 1 television show in the country when Iran-Contra was unraveling before our eyes was NBC’s The Cosby Show, starring Bill Cosby as America’s favorite pudding pop, a reassuring authority figure always handy with a quip, a malleable double take, and a grumpy forbearance. It was a more innocent time in TV, or maybe we were just more easily duped. Today it’s difficult to look at those Cosby reruns without scanning his features and line readings for intimations of the monster within: micro-expressions of the macro-aggressions perpetrated against dozens of women. After decades of rumors, accusations, and eventually lawsuits, the comedian’s long sideline as a serial date-rapist finally reached its reckoning when, in 2018, a jury convicted him of sexual assault; he is serving a 3-to-10-year sentence.
Chasing Cosby, a Los Angeles Times podcast hosted by reporter Nicki Weisensee Egan (author of the 2019 book Chasing Cosby: The Downfall of America’s Dad), documents why and how it took so long to bring the entertainer to justice—the slow, eventual vindication of Cosby’s initial accuser, Andrea Constand, and the others who followed.
Chasing Cosby relies heavily on the audio testimonies of a number of Cosby’s victims, their accounts delivering a gut punch. We also hear Cosby’s mollifying phone call to Constand’s mother, Gianna, in which he tries to buy off their compliance by offering to pay for Andrea’s schooling—“as long as she maintains a 3.0 [grade point] average, she’ll be fine.” It’s like listening to a thundercloud try to stifle its rumbles and sound reasonable. The words are placating, but you can tell Daddy means business.
James Wolcott is a columnist for AIR MAIL