CHICAGO — Chicago. -- The charge that the Reagan campaign team of 1980 tried to delay the release of American hostages in Iran is a serious one, and hard to believe. It is true that the Reagan people feared an ''October surprise'' by which Jimmy Carter might pull his election out of the fire. In the same way, Richard Nixon's team had feared that Lyndon Johnson would produce some magic peace settlement in Vietnam during the 1968 campaign. Henry Kissinger did some spying to keep the Nixon people from being caught off guard.
The Reagan people have admitted, at the least, to similar attempts to monitor what Mr. Carter was up to in his efforts to free the hostages before the election. Some Reagan campaign members -- including Robert McFarlane and Richard Allen -- did meet with an Iranian at a Washington hotel.
But far more serious allegations are raised -- that the campaign manager, William Casey, met Iranians in Paris or Spain; that even the vice-presidential candidate, George Bush, had a Paris meeting with the Iranians; that arms were promised (to be channeled through Israel) if the hostages' release was delayed until Mr. Carter had lost the election.
There are witnesses of varying credibility to these supposed meetings. They are government informers, arms merchants or other busybodies. Of course, if we did not know of the later arms-for-hostages activity Messrs. McFarlane and Casey were involved in, and Manucher Ghorbanifar told us about it, people could dismiss what we know to be true on the grounds that Ghorbanifar was a well-known liar. Witnesses to secret arms deals tend not to be pillars of respectability.
Still, it is absurd to think that George Bush, an ex-CIA director, would commit himself to meetings of the sort described. And William Casey, though he was not yet director of the CIA, had enough OSS experience in World War II to keep him at a greater distance from the actual dirty work.
So the maximum claims -- especially those affecting Mr. Bush's direct participation -- seem wild and irresponsible. It is interesting to note that Mr. Bush usually denies his own direct participation, without more sweeping disavowals.
But a minimum claim does make sense of what happened later. When Messrs. Casey and McFarlane, using Oliver North and Ghorbanifar and some Israeli agents, sent shipment after shipment of missiles and spare parts to Iran, though the hostages were not produced when or in the numbers promised, what made the Reagan administration keep pursuing this goal, after repeated disappointments? If they had affected the release of Mr. Carter's hostages -- or thought they had -- that would explain what is otherwise almost incredible about Iran-contra.
The weird thing is that the belief that they affected the Carter hostages does not even have to be true. Reagan feelers and fumbling contacts, no matter how low-level, might have been given more credit -- by the fumblers themselves -- than they deserved. The Iranians had their own reasons for cultivating a new government in Washington, and might have held off releasing the hostages in any case. But if the Reagan efforts were coordinated with the late release, instead of causing it, who could be sure exactly what impact they had? And if there was even a chance that the Iranians had responded once, then that gave some reason to hope they would do so again.
The questions about 1980 probably have nothing to do with President Bush now. But they may have everything to do with the events of 1985 and 1986, when our government sold missiles to Khomeini while denying that it did. There were two hostage mysteries during the decade of the '80s, and the earlier one may explain the later.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.