The Orwell Maneuver
Did you hear about the effort by the left to delegitimize the election of the Republican president? No, not Donald Trump—we all know about the endless effort to impugn the validity of the 2016 presidential election. This is about another lefty effort, this time to delegitimize the 1980 presidential election which saw Republican Ronald Reagan defeat Democrat Jimmy Carter in a landslide.
This effort, which has bubbling along for, well, 43 years, got a big boost on March 18, when the The New York Times ran a story headlined “A Four-Decade Secret: One Man’s Story of Sabotaging Carter’s Re-election.” We can see the play: If the left, the Democrats, and the Mainstream Media (many would say they’re all one and the same) can convince people that Reagan cheated his way into the White House, then that puts the Reagan presidency and everything Reagan ever did under a cloud. Which, of course, is exactly what they want.
And since we’re thinking about the 1980s, our minds might go to the novel 1984, in which George Orwell summed up Big Brother’s guiding philosophy: “Who controls the present controls the past. Who controls the past controls the future.” The idea there is that if you control the present, you can write the journalism and the history such that your enemies (Republicans) look bad. And if you’ve made Republicans look bad in the past, then the stain lingers: how can they be good today or in the future?
By now conservatives are hip to this sort of thinking, which goes by many names, including “narrative control,” “framing,” or, more simply, “propaganda.” We know that the left will never give up on attacking anything that Republicans have ever done—and they have a sophisticated attack operation.
So, now today, watching this latest attack, we can see it for what it is: The Orwell Maneuver. By casting the past a certain way, they are aiming to shape the future. Their message: Republicans were bad and are bad; so in the next election, vote Democratic.
Who Is Ben Barnes?
Let’s take a closer look at that New York Times story. It’s the late-in-life “confession” of Ben Barnes, born in 1938, a former Democratic lieutenant governor of Texas and an active Democratic fundraiser ever since.
Barnes recalls that in the summer of 1980, he took a trip with John Connally to the Middle East. Connally was the former Democratic governor of Texas, although in the 1970s, he switched parties. Connally served as secretary of the treasury to Republican Richard Nixon, and then, in 1980, he launched a short-lived campaign for the GOP presidential nomination and withdrew from the race in March of that year. A few months later, he and Barnes took that trip to the Middle East, reportedly from July 18 to August 11.
Of course, 1980 was a pivotal year in the Middle East, as it was the year during which the Iranian ayatollahs held 52 Americans hostage in Tehran. That hostage-holding, of course, was a huge international drama and proved to be very damaging to Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Understandably, Carter wanted to get the hostages released, and yet they were not let go until just after he left office, in January 1981. Reacting to the Times story, buzzy MSM outlet Axios stated, “If Carter had secured the release of the hostages, he might have won.” Won re-election, that is.
We can never know for sure about that, of course, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Reagan triumphed in the 1980 election by a wide margin, surpassing Carter in the popular vote by nearly 10 percentage points and carrying 44 states.
Would the earlier release of the hostages have changed such a decisive landslide election result? We can’t know, although the possibility that a release could happen before the November 4 election was much discussed at the time—this hypothetical was called the “October Surprise.” (Here at Breitbart News in 2020, this author, who was proud to serve as a junior staffer in Reagan’s 1980 campaign, took a look at October Surprises, real and imagined, in U.S. history.)
Barnes told the Times that he didn’t know it at the outset, but the real purpose of Connally’s Middle East trip was to tell Arab leaders that the Iranians should not make a deal with Carter to let the hostages out before the election.
As Barnes explains, Connally was there “to 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.” That is, Connally was supposedly scheming to hurt Carter’s electoral chances and help Reagan’s. And of course, according to Barnes and the article, Connally was hurting Americans and committing treason, or close to it. Serious charges, if true.
Now we can note some immediate concerns about the truth of Barnes’ tale. Connally was talking to Arabs, not Iranians—and the two ethnicities have often been at war. Moreover, the Arabs he was talking to were Sunni, and the Iranians were Shia—and the two denominations within Islam have also often been in conflict. Indeed, it was around this time that the Sunni Arab regime in Iraq launched an all-out war against the Shia regime of Iran. So, the idea that Connally would be talking to Arab Sunnis about possible American policies and that it would get passed along, in a straight way, to Iranian Shias seems highly implausible.
The newspaper did concede that Barnes has no proof of any his substantive claims, nor any real evidence: “confirming Mr. Barnes’ account is problematic after so much time.” But it was not so problematic as to stop the Times from printing it! On the other hand, Barnes has told others over the years about the purported real purpose of the trip; there was a brief mention of the allegation in a 2015 book by respected historian H.W. Brands, although it drew little attention.
The Times puts great stock in the apparent fact that Connally met with Reagan’s 1980 campaign manager, William Casey, at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Although interestingly, that meeting was on or about September 10, 1980, which made it a full month after Connally returned to the U.S. from his trip. It seems reasonable to surmise that if Connally had something “hot”—and if Casey were really interested in hearing all about it—that the meeting would have happened much sooner.
And of course, Connally and Casey are both dead, as are most likely Connally’s interlocutors in the Arab world. So, Barnes is now free to recall, as he might wish, anything.
It’s hardly shocking that Connally wanted the meeting with Casey. Connally was a big wheel in American life and a big deal in his own estimation; he wanted to be either secretary of state or defense in a possible Reagan administration.
For his part, Bill Casey was not only Reagan’s main man, he was good at gathering intelligence. Back in World War II, he had served in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA, before going on to a distinguished career in law and government. And in 1981, President Reagan appointed him head of the CIA, where he was a key figure in the administration’s successful effort to defeat Soviet communism. (Indeed, Casey, who died in 1987, is a figure of fascination in his own right.)
So, it’s entirely possible that Connally and Casey traded gossip, strategy, and, yes, tidbits about the Middle East. But there’s simply no evidence that anything untoward happened. And furthermore, there’s no evidence that Casey took anything of his conversation back to Reagan.
Yet even so, the wording of that headline in the Times, “One Man’s Story of Sabotaging Carter’s Re-election,” suggests the sense that it must be true. And that Orwellian Maneuver—his past was bad, so he must be bad—is a slam on Reagan.
In the meantime, the article pulls its punches on Barnes. For instance, it mentions that his 1972 campaign for governor of Texas would “fall short.” Well, yes, Barnes did lose the Democratic gubernatorial primary, badly, coming in third with less than 18 percent of the vote. But what’s not mentioned is that the previous year, 1971, he had been embroiled in an epic scandal in Texas that left him deeply implicated, if not formally accused.
That scandal ended his political career and might call his honesty into question. One can speculate that the reporter left that out so as not to undermine Barnes—or to not undermine his own news story.
From the right, some strong voices have come to Reagan’s defense. Or maybe that’s not the right way to say it, since Reagan himself was not attacked in the story, even as it was insinuated, of course, that his campaign was corrupt and his legacy is thus corrupted. In any case, Daniel McCarthy, writing in The New York Post, asked, “When is a single-source story good enough for The New York Times?” And he answered, “When it appears to confirm a 40-year-old Democratic conspiracy theory.” McCarthy added, “The myth that Jimmy Carter lost the 1980 election because Reagan committed a misdeed tantamount to treason is in fact an enduringly popular conspiracy theory among liberals.”
There’s even been some criticism of the Times story from the left. MSNBC columnist Michael A. Cohen (not Trump’s ex-lawyer-turned-accuser) tweeted, “The more I read @peterbakernyt‘s piece on Ben Barnes, John Connally and the secret mission to interfere in the 1980 election, the more it doesn’t quite add up.”
I hate to be that guy … but the more I read @peterbakernyt's piece on Ben Barnes, John Connally and the secret mission to interfere in the 1980 election, the more it doesn't quite add up. In particular, these paragraphs (THREAD) pic.twitter.com/T6WuB4kmoj
— Michael Cohen (@speechboy71) March 19, 2023
So okay, maybe the Times story should be regarded as somewhere between “unknowable” and “dubious.” Still, that hasn’t stopped others from charging in, and that gives us more of a sense of where this story is headed, long after Barnes joins Connally in wherever it is that Texas politicos end up.
Playing Out the Orwell Maneuver
As we have seen, the original notion of the October Surprise in 1980 was that it would be the last-minute—just in time for the election— freeing of the hostages from Iran. That didn’t happen, of course, and then the definition changed, becoming instead a trick by the Reagan campaign against Carter. By a quick count, this Democrat-friendly narrative has come up bigly in 1989, 1990, 1991, 2016, 2020, 2021, and now, of course, in 2023.
Once the Times story was released, the Mainstream Media ran with it. Yahoo News blasted the story out, and other MSM outlets added their own spin, seeming to turn allegation into fact, as in this headline, “Lawmaker Confirms ‘October Surprise’ Plot to Sabotage Jimmy Carter’s Reelection.” The “lawmaker” doing the “confirming,” of course, is Barnes. And okay, he hasn’t held a lawmaking office since 1973 and he isn’t trustworthy and he doesn’t have any evidence. But as journalists sometimes say of something they really like, “Too good to check!”
Then, of course, came the linkage of alleged Reagan skullduggery with alleged Trump skullduggery, as in this headline: “Reagan, Trump, and the Price of Presidential Impunity.” There’s some more Orwell Maneuvering there: tarring one with the other.
One progressive tweeter, with 1.2 million followers, treated Barnes’ allegation as a simple fact: “If ANYONE had a legit right to be pissed about an election being stolen, it was President Carter. Republicans told Iran NOT to release the hostages, that Reagan would win and give them a better deal.” Just like that, it’s all taken to be true.
But then, how could it not be true? It was, after all, in The New York Times! And so the Orwellian Maneuvering against Republican ratchets up another notch.
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