There is a commonality for those of us who are hopelessly optimistic about our country and always in support of its elected leaders: we want to believe that our presidents are always acting in our enlightened interest as a country and that they are fully operating under the constraints of the laws of the land while they do. Of course, experience has proven that this is not always the case, but some of us wish to give to those in high office the benefit of the doubt (see 1 Timothy 2:2; Titus 3:1). That’s why this film is particularly disturbing to those of us who like to think that presidents don’t do anything willfully illegal, just predictably unpopular.
In the Reagan years, we, as a country, were still operating under the assumption that it was our highest duty to stop the pernicious spread of communism (this assumption not only carried us through the Cold War and into the Cuban Missile Crisis, but also propelled us into the quagmire of Vietnam). President Reagan, for one, devoutly believed that it was important to support the “Contras” of Central America, especially as the rebels were seen as attempting to undermine socialist regimes. (Besides, Costa Rica and El Salvador are perilously close to our inherent national interest in access to the Panama Canal.)
But Congress, then, as now, was bipartisan, and the president’s obdurate opposition effectively blocked his requests for funding the Contras. (It’s a time-honored tradition in a two-party system for the party not occupying the White House at the time to be as un-cooperative as possible regarding any presidential request for legislation. Some things never change.)
President Reagan was apparently so convinced of the righteousness of his cause to fund the Contras that he (and/or his dutiful minions) concocted a grand surreptitious funding scheme: the CIA would run drugs, using paid local operatives to transport them from Central American into the United States. Then, the money that was made in their sale and distribution inside our biggest cities was then covertly funneled into secret purchases of weapons and ammunition for the Contras. The thinking was somewhat along the lines of, “Well, the drugs are going to get run, so we might as well make the profits off them ourselves and use the proceeds to fund something important to us that the idiots around us can’t seem to grasp the significance of.” Of course, that plan was illegal for all kinds of reasons, not to mention immoral in providing easy access to the poisonously addicting “crack” cocaine on hapless U.S. citizens who were mostly poor minorities. Whole communities became social wastelands. And some very bad people were profiting mightily with the apparent support and cooperation of the U.S. government. Secretly, of course. National security, you know.
A reporter for a somewhat obscure California newspaper, Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), stumbles upon this nefarious plot because he received a tip from the estranged wife of one of the drug runners (who had her own motivations for blowing the lid off this explosive deception). Webb had apparently developed a local reputation of one who sought “the truth” in his stories because the public had a right to know.
But aggressive investigative journalism is not an example of a course in “How To Win Friends and Influence People.” At first, Webb’s little paper wanted confirmation of the details of the story, some of which Webb procured from sources wishing to remain anonymous, but his editors were proud to share the glory of the national spotlight when the nasty revelations first emerged. However, it was not long before the “push-back” came, with many higher-up people having lots of motivation to discredit Webb, threaten his family and generally make the whole thing go away quietly (in part by only reluctantly admitting part of the culpability and then only when the country was completely distracted by other bigger headlines, like Clinton/Lewinsky).
Cynical? Yes. But powerful, as well. Especially since it’s based on a true story. The trouble is, we’ll never really know all the truth here. But even the part that is revealed is enough to rattle your confidence in the good intentions of our duly elected political leaders. As if we need more of that right now.
Ronald P. Salfen is parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.