Reagan, Carter, and the Hostage release, January 20, 1981
I wrote about it back then. This is how I saw it that day.
I read today that a prominent Texas politician, Len Barnes, has admitted that the reason the hostage crisis in Iran didn’t end until after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan is because a Republican contingent, himself included, went to Iran and promised a better deal if the Iranian leaders waited until after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. They did wait, and, minutes after the noon hand-off from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, the news came that the hostages had been released. (You can read the NYT story here in a gift article that gets you over the paywall.)
I remember that moment well. I was a columnist for a string of suburban Detroit newspapers back then and I wrote about it as the day progressed. When I look back on the events of that day it still seems surreal. . . First, that Ronald Reagan, of all people, was actually going to be President of the United States, and second, that the Iran hostages were going to be released on Inauguration Day, after 444 days in captivity. We had heard rumors all morning that the hostages were likely to be released, and we kept hoping that if it was going to happen it might mercifully happen before noon, on Jimmy Carter's watch.
But of course, it didn't happen that way. There are some who always maintained that Republican operatives worked behind the scenes to guarantee the dramatic timing of the release. The talk was out there as I wrote this, and I wholeheartedly believed it, but I kept the politicizing to a minimum--something I probably wouldn't do today. (I would probably write it better, as well, but this was about as good as it got for me back then.)
Otherwise, this is how I saw things transpire on that day:
January 20, 1981. It is mid-morning and Walter Cronkite is announcing that the hostages are about to be released: "There is no truth to the rumor, however, that they are in the air."
Walter doesn't sound very excited. Why isn't Walter excited? "They are reported to be in two buses, waiting to board the two Algerian airliners a few feet away on the tarmac. . ."
Walter is talking through his teeth; terse, almost angry. This day--Inauguration Day, Liberation Day--was to have been Walter's finest, final hour. On a par with lift-off on the launching pads in the old days, Walter's favorite reporting assignments. All is finally right with the world, and Walter--Walter is mad.
Why? Walter, ever the professional newsman, isn't saying. Partly though, it has to be because this was to have been Jimmy Carter's final finest hour, too, and the barbarians have cheated him out of even that. [Cronkite was forced by CBS to retire just months later.]
We wait with Walter all morning, hoping they will be released before noon--swearing-in time. Please, let Jimmy Carter have this one last moment of glory. Let it happen during his presidency.
We watch the platforms being built, the parade preparations, the sleek, black limousines coming and going through the gates at the White House. We switch back and forth to reporters at separate vantage points to make sure they're ready. We talk about what a beautiful spot this is, on the south lawn, looking out at the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. We wonder why no other president before Reagan has chosen it as a place for swearing in.
Every now and then we quit the small talk to question the motives of the kidnappers in Tehran who chose this very moment in American history to cause another historical event. Who was it to bother? Jimmy Carter? Ronald Reagan? We Americans in general?
Just before noon we switch to Tom Brokaw. He is announcing that momentarily Ronald Wilson Reagan will be sworn in as either the 39th or 40th president of the United States, depending on how you look at it--but first this from Kimberly-Clark. [I don't remember why the question came up. Couldn't find an answer to this.]
NOON. The swearing-in. Nancy is wearing a bright red dress, clearly visible even from the helicopter overhead. Rosslyn is dressed in beige and has not smiled once. The camera swings by her, never to return. Ronald Reagan introduces, for the last time, President Carter and Vice-president Mondale. He is raising his right hand.
The weather in Washington is an enchanting 50 degrees and sunny, as every commentator on every channel relentlessly reminds us. Many minutes of reportage are spent watching for an impending cloud cover.
At lunch, less than 20 minutes after the ceremony, now-President Reagan makes the announcement that the hostages are over free air space. He does it in fine actor-politician style and everybody cheers. No one asks where Jimmy Carter is. No one thinks to stand him in front of a camera to get his reaction.
Someone asks Barbara Walters how she feels about the hostages being released, and she says, strangely, "I feel guilt." Nothing more. Just "I feel guilt".
The interviewer doesn't ask why. Was it because the media played the incident up too much? Not enough? Does she feel guilt because all of her usually effective powers of persuasion might as well have been so much marshmallow for all the help she was to the hostages? Or is it because one newscaster is asking another newscaster how she feels instead of asking someone whose opinion might have mattered?
Never mind, Barbara. Jane Pauley is doing that. Jane is asking hostage family members, "How do you feel now that the hostages have been released?"
The family members each smile and say variations of "Wonderful! Just wonderful!"
Jane's next question is, "What will you do when (fill in the blank) comes home?" The loved one has to think about that. Finally he or she grins and says, "I really don't know--just go back to a normal life, I guess."
Jane grins, too. There isn't much more to say. Back to you, Tom.
Then someone says, "We mustn't forget the seven Americans who died trying to rescue the hostages. They mustn't have died in vain." The mood is spoiled. Back to earth. . .
Now someone is asking why didn't we do the yellow ribbon bit for the POWs? Well, we did--sort of, someone on a panel says. We had I.D bracelets, remember? But, look--you can't compare the two. The POWs were soldiers. They are subject to that kind of stuff--even trained for it. These hostages (the 52) were trained for diplomacy. Makes a difference.
Someone else asks, "Why are we calling them 'heroes'?" But then the trailer carrying the Mormon Tabernacle choir rolls to a lurching stop in front of the reviewing stand. They are singing "Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord". Tears glisten in the new president's eyes. An American smile crinkles his face. The camera never wavers.
Moments later the local cameras take over and we see the front door of the [Joseph Subic, Jr.] home. The Subics, however, choose to remain indoors, away from the cameras. We become quickly bored with watching a front door and move on to other things.
Robert Ode's people are "just folks". Michigan gothic. We love them.
Earth mother Mattie Jones, mother of Charles A. Jones, Jr., is holding the phone and crying. We love her, too. (Please, Mattie--don't let us in again.)
The scene shifts once more and --is it?. . . It is! Yes! There they are! They're coming down the steps of the Algerian airliner, passing through a gantlet of people--only this time they’re smiling and patting them on their backs.
Former hostage Richard Queen is doing the roll call for us as each hostage comes past the cameras. Barbara Rosen is in the studio. She tells which one is her husband, Barry. "There he is. There's Barry," she says, barely smiling. It is almost an apology.
But, yes. . .we can breathe easy now. We see them and they're smiling. They're free.
This is the day we've all been waiting for. Now the emotions, checked for so long, can flow. Soon the tears will come. . .
Incredibly, they do not. It's not the way we wanted it to be. We didn't want to share the day with this new president. We wanted Jimmy to leave happy, feeling fulfilled. We wanted Walter to leave happy. We wanted it to be like the year the Tigers won the World Series. We wanted to open doors and hear the shouting and the cheers. We wanted to decorate our cars, our trees, our houses with symbolic yellow ribbons.
It happened too fast. We didn't have time. The thugs, with their on-again, off-again promises--their malicious timing--robbed us of even that.
A psychiatrist is telling us that it is absolutely essential that we allow the 52 a speedy return to normal life, else we will have 52 basket cases on our hands.
An entrepreneur is showing the camera several styles of hostage tee shirts, hostage buttons, hostage bumper stickers. "It is just our way," he says, "of showing how much we care."
Suddenly we're exhausted. It's been a long day. We'll sort it all out tomorrow, but now--we can't turn the TV off fast enough.
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