Washington -- IN DECIDING to investigate whether the 1980 Reagan campaign sought to delay the release of American hostages held in Iran until after the presidential election, the Democratic congressional leadership is walking on eggs. But it is walking just the sao a real contest. In an effort to shelter themselves from charges of election-year politicking, House Speaker Tom Foley and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell have specifically declared that they "accept the statement of President Bush that he neither participated in or had any knowledge of such contacts (with Iranian officials holding 52 Americans)."
Bush has denied, as once alleged, that he attended a meeting in Paris in the fall of 1980 in which a deal was supposed to have been struck assuring arms shipments to Iran after the election if the hostages were held, thus denying President Jimmy Carter an "October Surprise" that might re-elect him. After some delay, the White House released Bush's schedule indicating he could not possibly have been in Paris for any such meeting.
But the then-vice presidential candidate would not have had to be in Paris for a meeting to have been aware of, and involved in, the sort of deal that former National Security Council aide Gary Sick and others suggest took place, leading to the release of the hostages minutes after Reagan's swearing-in in 1981. So while the Democratic leaders say their target is not Bush, the immediate political significance of their investigation is to offer a possible wedge into his seeming invincibility heading toward the 1992 election.
Pursuing the investigation seriously risks coming up empty-handed and inviting more Republican charges of mischief-making. House Minority Leader Bob Michel has already greeted the news of the investigation by saying Democrats will be "wasting an awful lot of money on a charade" and produce nothing but "a lot of political shenanigans."
But Foley and Mitchell are going to considerable pains to low-ball the investigation, appointing two of their party's most respected, evenhanded veterans, Rep. Lee Hamilton and Sen. Terry Sanford, to head it up, and avoiding showy public hearings, at least at the outset. That way, they obviously hope that if no pay dirt is struck, they can declare they have done their duty and fold the whole business without undue political cost to the Democrats.
There is, however, more at stake in the "October Surprise" allegations than whether the Democrats can use them to cut Bush down to size in 1992. The immensity of the charge -- that politicians traded the lives of captive Americans to subvert a presidential election -- dwarfs even Watergate and demands a thorough investigation, regardless of how much Republicans squawk.
It is true that there is not always fire where there is smoke, but there is a fair amount of smoke, starting with the timing of the hostages' release and the word of several witnesses that they took part in a European meeting or meetings with the Reagan campaign manager at the time, William Casey, later Reagan's CIA director. But Casey is deceased and many of those who can talk are not the most sterling characters.
Casey without question was obsessed by the fear of Carter pulling his re-election chestnuts out of the fire by engineering a pre-election release of the hostages. He said so to reporters at the Republican convention in Detroit, and the Reagan campaign set up a "hostage watch" outside select U.S. military bases to spot any pre-election shipments that might be going out in exchange for the 52 Americans.
Michel says that "people back home don't give two hoots" about the whole business, and he's no doubt right. All this is the stuff of an off-the-wall Hollywood thriller, but then so was the Watergate break-in, criticism of which by Democratic nominee George McGovern was disparaged at the time as campaign Republican-bashing.
People back home probably don't give two hoots about the continuing investigation into the Iran-contra scandal, either, which also continues to hang over Bush despite denials of involvement. But like the unanswered questions in that scandal, the "October Surprise" allegations are much too serious to be left unexamined, quite beyond the possible impact on the 1992 election.