By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tom Johnson on his role in the ‘October surprise’ story: ‘I care about my reputation’

Barnes told the historian H.W. Brands, above, about his Connally claims for a 2015 biography of Reagan, but no one took much notice. Photo (cc) 2022 by Larry D. Moore.

I got off the phone a little while ago with Tom Johnson, the former top executive at the Los Angeles Times and CNN who, along with several other people, confirmed that Ben Barnes had once told him that Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign interfered with efforts to bring home 52 American hostages from Iran.

Barnes told The New York Times in a story published Saturday that he had accompanied his mentor, John Connally, a former Texas governor and Reagan supporter, on a mission to Middle Eastern capitals aimed at trying to prevent the hostages from being released until after the November 1980 election. The crisis was a significant factor in President Jimmy Carter’s loss to Reagan. The Reagan camp’s fear that Carter would find a way to bring the hostages home just before the election is often referred to as “the October surprise.”

What prompted Johnson to contact me was that I had expressed shock that he’d kept this story to himself until the Times’ Peter Baker spoke with him to confirm that he’d heard it from Barnes. “Unconscionable,” I called it. Johnson wanted me to know that there was more to the story. “This is not a cover-my-ass kind of call,” he said, adding: “I care about my reputation.” I thought Johnson made some worthwhile points, and I’ll lay them out here.

  • Johnson said he did not learn about Barnes’ account until 2017, some 16 years after his retirement. He, Barnes and several other people were attending a dinner when Barnes told his story, he recalled. Johnson also said that he considered the dinner to be off the record. Still, he added, he should have found a way to get the story to journalists without breaking that agreement, saying, “Clearly this is a serious ethical issue here…. Am I feeling terrible about not finding a way? Yes.”
  • Johnson also said that he urged Barnes to tell Carter, and that Barnes said he would. “I think everybody at the table felt that it reflected incredibly badly on Gov. Connally,” Johnson told me. “I encouraged Ben to tell President Carter before he dies, and he said he planned to.” Apparently, though, Barnes kept his silence (or not; see below) until he spoke with the Times recently.
  • The historian H.W. Brands actually interviewed Barnes and wrote about his claims some years earlier in his 2015 biography of Reagan. Brands responded to questions about that conversation with Barnes several days ago with the History News Network. “Connally conveyed to governments and influential people in the Middle East that it would ‘not be helpful’ — Barnes’s characterization — to the Reagan campaign if the hostages were released before the election,” Brands told HNN. He also said he was “surprised” that Barnes’ comments received little attention after his book, “Reagan: The Life,” was published.

All of this provides valuable context as to how and when Johnson learned of Barnes’ claims and why he didn’t say anything after he learned about them. I think it’s significant that he did not know about them until recent years. Johnson said he thought Barnes was going to speak with Carter, and that would have led to a major national story. Most important, Barnes’ claims had already been published in a book just two years earlier, and no one took much notice.

This is all fascinating stuff.

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