The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
"The Nicaraguan Peace Initiative"
The Ambition and the Power: The Fall of Jim Wright, A True Story of Washington
John M. Barry (New York: Viking, 1989)
Jim Wright

Wright hosted lunch in H-201 for Foley, Michel, Howard Baker, Loeffler, and George Shultz. Though the Secretary of State, Shultz had not been included before, and he was leery of any foreign policy initiative that came out of the White House -- especially one which involved Congress. But he listened.

Wright repeated that any peace proposal had to stand alone, independent of contra aid. No "two-track policy of subsidizing war while talking peace." For the first time, the United States would advance a peace proposal that existed "on its own, without a club in the closet." Wright worried that the pride of the Central Americans alone could force rejection if the plan were accompanied by a threat.

Shultz disagreed, arguing that the only reason the Sandinistas were willing to negotiate was military pressure from the contras. Negotiations were fine, as long as military pressure did not let up.

Shultz's statement worried Foley. He repeated, "There is no linkage between this initiative and contra aid. Absolutely none. Failure of the initiative does not imply our support for contra aid."

Baker and Loeffler jumped in, reassuring, trying to sink the hook into Wright, promising that Reagan would not propose military aid until late September at the earliest, giving a peace proposal time to show progress. Then Foley demanded to know why they had to come to Wright anyway. Why did they need him at all?

"The President doesn't have any credibility," Loeffler explained. "If the President made the proposal it would be dismissed as empty rhetoric."

The comment made sense to Wright. And a decision had to be made, now. If he did not act soon there would be no point in acting at all. The Central American foreign ministers would get together in four days. The presidents would meet in one week. Any intiative had to occur before then. He was determined to proceed.

But he was alone. Not a single member or aide close to him agreed with him. That afternoon Coelho, Bonior, and Mack sat down in H-210, Wright's office off the floor. Nothing any of them had learned had altered their conviction that this joint peace proposal was a trap, a terrible trap which would end up with the passage of military aid to the contras and which could destroy Wright's speakership.

In the morning came the breakfast.

The House was not in session. It was a summer Friday, July 31. Coelho showed up in jeans. So did Mack. Immediately after breakfast they would leave with their families for Bethany Beach, three hours away on the Atlantic. They needed to relax. The Capitol was still, deserted, empty even of tourists. It was early. The corridor by Wright's office dark, the Rayburn Room dark.

"Has anyone seen the Washington Times story?" asked Foley's aide George Kundanis. The Washington Times was owned by the Reverend Moon's Unification Church, the "Moonies" who sold flowers in airports; it was ultraconservative and few Democrats read it. They were reluctant to give Moon twenty-five cents. No one but Kundanis had read it. He sent for a copy. A page quickly brought it. Foley read aloud a front-page story based on an interview with National Security Adviser Carlucci: Reagan would call for $300 million in aid, "'after Congress adjourns the first week in August.'"

"When we're scattered and helpless," Coelho interjected.

Foley continued: "'We need a bipartisan foreign policy and I think things are now moving,' Mr. Carlucci said . . . But President Reagan intends to take his case to Congress, use his veto powers during the recess, and 'press his own foreign policy forcefully.'"

As Wright listened, his face first sagged with disappointment, then tightened with anger. Veto? Press his own foreign policy forcefully? $300 million in contra aid in September?

"Get Carlucci," Wright snapped to Mack.

Mack dialed the White House, asked for him, and nodded. Wright picked up the phone, waited on hold while Carlucci's secretary played a petty power game, then said, "Frank, how are you? I'm meeting with Byrd this afternoon. Could Baker come by? Good. Now there's this story in the Washington Times. . . . Their 'interpretation'? . . .Oh . . . Misquote? . . . Uh-huh." As the conversation continued, people around the table smiled; they could hear the peace plan disintegrating. The room grew lighter with the release of tension.

Wright hung up. He was more disappointed than angry. "At the end he started talking about negotiations with contra aid too, just in case. These people are playing too many tracks. They want a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on bootleg whiskey."

Foley and Coelho attacked the administration's double-dealing. A bitterness, even a sudden hatred, for the administration coursed through the room like a wave, then dissipated. Political games were one thing; setting up the Speaker of the House was another.

The Speaker's joint initiative with the President seemed over. Dead. The next day Wright was leaving for Texas. They all could relax now. But Wright wasn't relaxing. He was thinking.

Over the weekend Wright reviewed the peace proposal word by word. On Monday morning his draft was distributed at a ten-thirty meeting he called in the Speaker's Dining Room. It included administration officials, the bipartisan House leadership, the Senate Democratic leadership, and key chairmen and ranking House Republicans. Wright had expected several Republican senators, but only Bob Dole attended.

Wright got to the point quickly and his language was uncharacteristically blunt. "Our apprehension has been that if we went forward, some in the administration would not be in earnest. One week after we launch an initiative, the President would go on TV and say how bad the Sandinistas are and we need $300 million to fight them. if that happened I'd be screwed. It would be like me saying, 'Come, let us reason together' while I kick you in the balls. Certainly the Sandinistas would reject a peace overture then. Tom Foley and I have repeated over and over that there must be absolutely no linkage between this proposal and contra aid. The White House wants us to join a bipartisan initiative. I would like to. If I do, it's not two tracks. Not diplomacy and military pressure. It's one track. Diplomacy. We've got a September 30 deadline for the Sandinistas. I'd like a commitment from the White House you won't go on a rhetorical binge between now and September 30. If we go forward together, then we just talk peace -- peace -- until then. Now that's my speech."

There was silence. After a moment Shultz and then Michel responded; both talked of the need for military leverage against the Sandinistas.

Wright disagreed. "I would rather have our heart and soul and effort put into a peace plan than have us mobilized against each other, lining up opposing armies in the Congress, and approve or reject contra aid by six, eight, ten votes, with no consensus. If for once we can unite, speak for the United States, it could have an electric effect on Central America. But that effect would be obliterated if the President or other people make speeches condemning one another or talking contra aid. It would cast doubt on our good faith. The President is key to that."

Dick Cheney objected, but Shultz read aloud the last sentence of Wright's draft which stipulated that if the deadlines were not met "the parties . . . would be free to pursue such actions as they deem necessary to protect their national interest." He was satisfied that that meant the threat of contra aid still hung over the Sandinistas.

Foley interrupted. "We're on the verge of a very dangerous misunderstanding. If the assumption is, in the absence of Nicaragua's agreement, then Democrats will support aid, that's a mistake."

Henry Hyde countered. "I'll just make the point that if your enthusiasm for no aid goes, say, from ten to seven, that will be very useful."

It was a telling point. That was precisely the fear the Democrats had. If the plan failed, swing Democrats would vote for aid. Coelho pursed his lips unhappily.

Shultz said he would meet with the President that afternoon. But he added, "It is time to decide."

Wright closed the meeting with one request: "It would be better not to say anything to the press."

At six-fifteen that night Shultz and Howard Baker sat back down with the bipartisan House leadership in H-201. No commitments had been made yet, no deal finalized, but they were going forward. Shultz and House Republicans picked over Wright's draft.

"On your point number one regarding the security interests of the U.S., can we add 'threat to the region'?"

"Yes," Wright said.

"This doesn't mention naval bases," complained Cheney.

"Why not change 'landing facilities' to 'facilities'?" Wright suggested.

"Do we imply by this that before a cease-fire the contras and Sandinistas must meet?"

"Not necessarily face-to-face. They could use a go-between."

They came to a sticking point over language demanding free elections. Republicans wanted to specify a presidential election. "The heart of the whole issue is whether [the] Sandinistas will yield power peacefully," Cheney said.

"You want to tell them to amend their constitution," Wright argued. "I want them to live up to it."

They compromised on language calling for "an electoral commission [to] be established to assure regular elections open to free participation by all."

After two hours Shultz said, "It's settled. Numbers two and three we'll leave the way the Speaker wrote them. As for some of the ambiguities in here, that's not necessarily bad."

That was it. The Democrats were nervous, nervous as hell.

Bonior: "I think it must be made clear that the Speaker is taking an incredible risk. You've got to quiet things down. Your own troops are out there running vicious anti-Sandinista ads. They should disappear."

Foley: "Before everyone signs off, I suggest a day to think about this."

Baker: "We should do it as quickly as possible. I think the plan ought to be announced up here, by whomever you designate, and have the President come up here."

"The Speaker is symbolic and you know it," Coelho countered. "That's why you're here. Before we do any of this, the two symbolic leaders should have a face-to-face and see what each means by this, not what the Secretary of State and chief of staff mean."

It was late. The meeting broke up. Every Democrat was desperately concerned.

In the Oval Office, Reagan, Wright, Shultz, Baker, Foley, Michel, Byrd and Dole -- the most senior members of the United States government -- gathered. Wright was handed a copy of a twenty-one point memorandum prepared by the White House. Reagan said, "This is our interpretation of what the agreement means."

"It doesn't need any interpretation," Wright replied. "It speaks for itself."

They began to discuss what they were agreeing to. Reagan still wanted contra aid of some kind, even if peace was reached. "You can't expect them to go out and get a job," he said. It was a legitimate point, but they agreed once again that the Democrats had made no commitment, of any kind, to support contra aid. And Reagan agreed with Wright's demand not to criticize the Sandinistas or ask for contra aid until September 30. Wright promised not to use the Rules Committee to block or manipulate a vote on his request.

The meeting ended. Outside the White House, the press surrounded people as they exited. Wright, for a change, liked what he was hearing. The day before, Michel had talked of Reagan's desire to "eradicate" the Sandinistas. Today Michel said, "Let's give it a chance."

But riding back to the Capitol, Wright read the twenty-one points. Point nineteen contradicted the President's promise of moments earlier: it stipulated that he could publicly condemn the Sandinistas and call for contra aid if they had not accepted the plan within two weeks, instead of two months. From his car phone Wright called Baker, didn't reach him, arrived at the Capitol, and stormed up the stairs to his ceremonial office -- which was closer than his personal office -- and called again. His voice was calm. And cold. "If that's your interpretation, all bets are off. I will feel betrayed. I have said repeatedly in meetings that the White House had to cool its rhetoric. I have made a big point of it and thought it had been accepted."

Baker told him the White House needed it, they had to have it, or their right wing would do everything possible to sabotage the deal. Baker swore it would not leak. No one was saying Wright had to agree to it anyway, and no one would say that.

Wright hung up. Baker was offering him precious little to cling to. For an instant he thought, It isn't too late to blow this whole thing up.

But it was. He turned on the television. CNN was going live to the White House for an announcement by the President. Wryly he wondered what had happened to Baker's earlier suggestion to have the Speaker make the announcement, to have the President come to the Hill for it.

"The plan's out there now," Wright said. "It's got a life of it's own." Maybe they had trapped him after all. He turned to an aide. "We need a strategy to handle the press."

Reagan and Shultz were on CNN now. Reagan made a statement, took no questions, and handed the microphone to Shultz, who hailed the "great leadership of the Speaker." Asked about skepticism among Democrats who thought the administration was only maneuvering for more aid, Shultz said, "There is skepticism among people with varying shades of opinion. This is not a ploy. The President believes in it, and the Speaker believes it in. What we need now is to do everything we can to bring about peace."