Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Ben Barnes, a former Texas politician, claims to have witnessed a plot to sabotage President Jimmy Carter’s re-election in 1980 by delaying the release of American hostages in Iran. His amazing confession told New York Times on Saturday.
The Iran hostage crisis destroyed Carter’s presidency and his re-election campaign, and with the hostages still not released on Election Day 1980, the incumbent lost badly to Ronald Reagan. Over four decades, many have argued that he would have fared much better had he secured the release of the 52 Americans in captivity.
But Barnes told Times that his mentor, former Texas Gov. John B. Connally Jr., was determined not to let that happen—and helped prevent the release of the hostages. That summer, Barnes says, Connally took him to several Middle Eastern capitals to convince regional leaders to tell Iran that they would get a better deal from Republican nominee Ronald Reagan if they held hostages after the election. That’s exactly what happened.
When they returned home from their trip, Barnes said, Connally told Reagan’s campaign chairman, William J. Casey, who later became director of the Central Intelligence Agency. (Barnes’ account contains no indication that Reagan knew anything about their trip.)
Known as the “October Surprise”, many have suspected that someone close to the Reagan camp worked on Carter’s efforts to release the hostages until after the election, but congressional investigations did not confirm these theories, and Connally was not the subject of these inquiries. Connally had run for the Republican nomination, which Reagan ultimately defeated. According to Barnes, after he helped block Carter’s campaign, he helped him become Secretary of State or Defense in the new administration.
Barnes — who served as Texas House speaker and lieutenant governor and also helped George W. Bush get into the Texas Air National Guard — said he wanted to set the record straight because Carter is in hospice care. “History needs to know what happened,” he said. “I think it’s so significant, and I think when I knew the end was near for President Carter, it got to me more and more. I just feel like we’ve got to get it down somehow.”
Although several of the players who could corroborate Barnes’ account are dead — including Connally and Casey — Barnes named four people he had confided in about the meetings. All four – Mark K. Updegrove, chairman of the LBJ Foundation; Tom Johnson, a former aide to Lyndon Johnson (no relation) who later became the publication’s publisher Los Angeles Times and President of CNN; Larry Temple, a former aide to Mr. Connally and Lyndon Johnson; and HW Brands, University of Texas historian – confirmed Times that Barnes had shared his story with them.
“As far as I know, Ben has never lied to me,” Tom Johnson said. There is also other evidence to support his account, including Brands, who wrote three paragraphs of Barnes’ account for a 2015 biography of Reagan, although it did not receive much attention, and records at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum show that Connally left Houston on July 18, 1980 for Jordan , to Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel and returned on August 11 – Barnes was listed with him.
Barnes said Times he was certain that the motive for the trip was to convey a message to Iran to keep the hostages after the election. “I’ll go to my grave believing that was the point of the trip,” Barnes said. “It wasn’t freelance because Casey was so interested to hear as soon as we got back to the States.” He added that Mr Casey wanted to know “if they were holding hostages”.
Barnes could not confirm whether messages sent to regional leaders were actually delivered to Iran or whether they had influence. Iran held hostages after the election. They were released shortly after noon on January 20, 1981, in the opening minutes of the Reagan presidency.
John B. Connally III, the former governor’s oldest son, disagreed with Barnes’ account and said Times that he remembered his father’s trip to the Middle East but was unaware of any message sent to Iran and that he had accompanied his father to a meeting with Reagan to discuss the visit.
– In no meeting that I was in, there was no mention of a message sent to the Iranians, Connally said. “That doesn’t sound like my dad.” He added: “I can’t question Ben’s memory of it, but it’s not consistent with my memory of the trip.”