The Iranian hostage crisis was one of the most destructive political events of the Carter Presidency. It dramatically undermined public confidence in him, and is largely responsible for his 1980 loss. While Reagan was beloved in the 1984 election, in the 1980 election he had been somewhat successfully painted as a radical to a nation not yet intimately familiar with him.
On the day of Reagan’s inauguration, twenty minutes after his inaugural address, the final 44 hostages were released. This has led to Republicans claiming that it happened because the Iranians were afraid of Reagan’s campaign rhetoric against them (he had threatened immediate use of force). The Democrats, on the other hand, claim that Reagan had nothing to do with it. They point to the fact that Carter’s negotiation team had been in talks with the Iranians for months and that the date had been previously agreed to. Politifact even gave Rubio’s recounting of the story “Pants on Fire” because he credited Reagan instead of Carter.
Note to Politifact: the idea that Iranian officials were intimately familiar with the details of the Carter administration and simultaneously blissfully unaware of repeated statements by the man who polls showed would plausibly replace him is inane. While it is true that the Republicans refuse to give any credit to Carter for his team’s negotiations, it’s also true that the Iranians continued to delay the release date for months… until Reagan’s inauguration.
So, the true myth would seem to be that Reagan had any direct hand in the hostage negotiations; he instead served as a “mile marker” beyond which the Iranians no longer felt comfortable delaying the hostage release. Except to the conspiracy theorists. To them, Reagan DID have a direct hand in it… because he secretly negotiated with the Iranians to hold the hostages as a sort of “October Surprise”.
Gary Sick wrote a book about it with that title, detailing his suspicions: Reagan’s campaign manager, Bob Casey, secretly flew to Madrid to engage in a covert deal with Iranian officials to keep the negotiations delayed.
This belief has been championed by a biographer of President Carter, Kai Bird, who asserts that a 1991 memo discovered in the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library mentioned “a cable from the Madrid embassy indicating that Bill Casey was in town, for purposes unknown.”
That is the current extent of the “proof” that there was a secret backroom deal. Why was the memo written in 1991 about something that happened in 1980, one might ask. The answer is that the memo was about evidence being gathered and presented to Congress for their investigations on the possibility, then hotly rumored among Democrat voters, of the aforementioned October Surprise.
It is possible that the Madrid embassy was incorrect about Casey’s presence; or it is possible that he surreptitiously visited for a short time to speak to someone in the embassy… Casey was a former spy and had friends throughout the intelligence world… but there was no indication that he had contact with Iranian agents.
So the only solid evidence supporting it is a memo that was given to a House which was controlled by the Democrats and looking for an excuse to damage both Bush and Reagan, and to a Senate which was controlled by the Democrats and looking for an excuse to damage both Bush and Reagan. If the conspiracy angle is to be believed, neither chamber’s investigators were able to recognize a potential smoking gun that they were handed, even though they were looking for exactly that and it was noted in the summary memos they were provided.
Or maybe the Iranians just didn’t respect Carter.