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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Adam Gabbatt

Republicans tried to delay release of US hostages to sabotage Carter, ex-aide claims – report

Black and white picture of Jimmy Carter
President Jimmy Carter prepares to make address on the failed mission to rescue the Iran hostages in 1980. Photograph: Anonymous/Associated Press

A former Texas governor met Middle Eastern leaders in 1980 to convince Iran to delay releasing American hostages as part of a Republican effort to sabotage Jimmy Carter’s re-election campaign, according to a news report.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that John Connally, who served as Texas’s Democratic governor from 1963 to 1969 and ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, traveled to a number of countries in the summer leading up to the 1980 election.

By that time Ronald Reagan had secured the Republican nomination, and the re-election campaign of his Democratic rival Carter was struggling in the midst of the crisis that resulted from more than 50 Americans being taken hostage from the US embassy in Tehran.

In an interview with the Times, a then protege to Connally named Ben Barnes said he was with Connally as he met leaders in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. Connally was there to deliver a message, the Times reported:

“Don’t release the hostages before the election. Mr Reagan will win and give you a better deal.”

Carter, who had ordered a failed attempt to rescue the hostages in April 1980, lost the election amid criticism of his handling of the Iran crisis and a stagnating economy. The hostages were eventually released on 20 January 1981, the day Reagan took office.

“History needs to know that this happened,” Barnes said in one of several interviews with the Times.

Barnes said he decided to come forward with his account after news last month that Carter, 98, had entered hospice care at his home in Plains, Georgia, after a series of hospital visits.

“I think it’s so significant and I guess knowing that the end is near for President Carter put it on my mind more and more and more,” Barnes said. “I just feel like we’ve got to get it down some way.”

Barnes – a Democrat who served as lieutenant governor of Texas and was vice-chair of John Kerry’s 2004 election campaign – told the Times that on returning from the Middle East, Connally reported to the chairman of Reagan’s campaign, William J Casey.

“Carter’s aides have long suspected that his campaign was torpedoed by Reagan affiliates who wanted to delay the release of American hostages until after the election,” Axios wrote on Monday.

It added: “Ronald Reagan’s subsequent presidency ushered in a conservative era that remains a model for Republicans. If Carter had secured the release of the hostages, he might have won instead.”

Being able to confirm Barnes’s account, the Times said, is difficult “after so much time”.

“Barnes has no diaries or memos to corroborate his account. But he has no obvious reason to make up the story and indeed expressed trepidation at going public because of the reaction of fellow Democrats,” the Times wrote.

Connally died in 1993. And Casey, who went on to become the director of central intelligence, died in 1987.

John Connally III, Connally’s eldest son, told the Times that he remembered his father taking the Middle East trip but had never heard about a message being sent to Iran.

Barnes told the Times he had shared the information with four people over the years: Tom Johnson, a former Lyndon B Johnson White House aide who later became president of CNN; Mark K Updegrove, president of the LBJ Foundation; Larry Temple, a former aide to Connally and Lyndon Johnson; and HW Brands, a University of Texas historian.

All four, the Times reported, confirmed that Barnes had told them the story.

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