It’s often said the true test of character is what you do when you know no one is looking.
True? Maybe. Partly.
Sometimes you’re confronted with a scandal or crisis not of your own making and that becomes your true test of character … especially when everyone in the world is looking.
Flunking the Test
When the test of character is flunked ...
- families and friendships can be ruined,
- businesses destroyed, and
- governments brought down.
The interview that follows is not about avoiding a scandal or crisis, but how one American President through strength of character dealt with a situation that threatened his presidency, his reputation, his place in history and America’s credibility. The insights gleaned can apply universally in your life of business or your business of life.
is a vapor; popularity an accident; riches take wind;
- Horace Greeley
An Affair Shakes the Presidency
In the mid 1980’s, President Ronald Reagan’s presidency was threatened by a looming scandal – The Iran-Contra affair. His reputation and the ability to lead the United States forward in hopes of ending the Cold War were in imminent danger.
At that critical moment, President Reagan decided to call the Ambassador to NATO, Dr. David M. Abshire, back to serve in the cabinet as Special Counselor.
Transparency Expeditious (not a disease)
Dr. Abshire’s mission?
Ensure a full investigation of the sale of arms to Iran in exchange for freeing American hostages and the subsequent funneling of those funds to Nicaraguan rebels. And (here’s the tough part) do it expeditiously and transparently, to restore the confidence of the nation in the shaken Reagan presidency.
Why Dr. Abshire?
Character. Competence. Commitment. Objectivity. Experience.
Dr. Abshire co-founded the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. His extensive experience, including service as Assistant Secretary of State and later as NATO Ambassador, gives him a perspective both unique and insightful. He is currently the president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and also president of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation.
Dr. Abshire was Ambassador to NATO where, in reaction to the threat posed by Soviet SS-20 missiles, he was the United States point man in Europe for deployment of Pershing and Cruise missiles. It was this NATO success that convinced the Soviets to sign the historic INP Treaty and withdraw their missiles. Ambassador Abshire initiated a new conventional defense improvement effort so that NATO would not have to rely heavily on nuclear weapons. For this, he was given the highest Defense Department civilian award – its Distinguished Public Service Medal.
He has received the John Carroll Award for outstanding service by a Georgetown University alumnus; the Distinguished Graduate Award of the United States Military Academy; the 1994 U.S. Military Academy's Castle Award; the Gold Medal of the Sons of the American Revolution; the Baylor Distinguished Alumni Award; the Order of the Crown (Belgium); Commander de l'Ordre de Leopold (Belgium); the Medal of the President of the Italian Republic, Senate, Parliament and Government; Grand Official of the Order of the Republic of Italy; Order of Diplomatic Service Merit Heung-In Medal (Korea); the insignia of the Commander, First Class, Order of the Lion of Finland; in 1999, the Order of the Liberator (Argentina); and in May 2001, the Order of the Sacred Treasure Gold and Silver Star (Japan). In addition to the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, he was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal.
Dr. Abshire received his bachelor's degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
In the Korean War, he served as a platoon leader, company commander, and a division assistant intelligence officer. He received The Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster with V for Valor, Commendation Ribbon with medal pendant, and Combat Infantry Badge. He was awarded his Ph.D. in History from Georgetown University with honors (Gold Key Society). He received a Doctor of Humane Letters from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1992 and a Doctor of Civil Law, honoris causa, from the University of the South in 1994.
In 1987, Dr. Abshire served as a Special Counselor to President Reagan with Cabinet rank, to coordinate the Iran-Contra investigation, and had authority to meet with the President alone.
Steve: What was your most memorable moment in the crisis with President Reagan, which illuminated his strength of character and determination?
Dr. Abshire: I would say that my most memorable moment with President Reagan was the initial phone conversation that I had with him in December 1986. At the time, I was at Truman Hall, my NATO Ambassadorial residence, and I had read all about the trouble the President was in regarding the sale of arms to Iran for hostages. The President requested I come back to Washington to be his special counselor – with cabinet rank – during this crisis and that I would report directly to him.
There are two very important things about this phone call that show Reagan’s strengths and character as a leader:
1. The fact that he called me personally and did not leave it to one of his staffers shows just how serious of a situation he was in, and just how important it was to him personally to climb out of this dilemma.
Other leaders in his position – who did not care about setting things right – would have left this job to somebody else. The fact that he didn’t says volumes about his determination to get ahead of this crisis.
2. The fact that he even requested a Special Counselor to help facilitate the crisis from the White House – with the job of getting everything out with no executive privilege – shows that he was concerned with setting things right.
President Reagan was concerned with his reputation as a leader and didn’t want to offer an opportunity for anybody to impugn his integrity and character saying that there was a cover-up.
Steve: What was the most important thing you learned from this experience?
Dr. Abshire: The most important thing I learned is that when you get in a hole, do not dig it deeper; come clean, get outside help, and climb out of it.
Dr. Abshire: There are many instances of presidents – take Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton for example – that dug their hole deeper until they couldn’t get out.
Nixon did not know about the initial Watergate break in, but he covered up the investigation.
Clinton, instead of admitting to his infidelity at the onset – which is not a crime, made the mistake of lying to a grand jury to hide it from his wife and family and came very close to impeachment.
Reagan, on the other hand, took the necessary steps to save his presidency, which leads me to my second point: the creation of the Tower Board. Reagan empowered a bipartisan committee to investigate his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal. This step was essential to show the public and Congress that he was serious about investigating any wrong doing that may have happened on his watch. The President could not get out of his hole or create the Tower Board without “reaching out” – both to myself and to other Members of Congress.
By reaching out and involving Congress in the progress of the investigation, the President gave them a stake in its outcome and also a feeling that they were intimately involved in the process as a whole.
Steve: What surprised you most about this experience with President Reagan?
Dr. Abshire: I was most surprised by the practical nature of the President. For all talk of a Reagan and Conservative Revolution in the early 1980s with its anti-Communist sentiments, I was pleasantly surprised by Reagan’s philosophy – he was not an ideologue. I was impressed with his ability to shift America’s strategy to face the shifting currents of the times and not to strictly adhere to any ideological plank.
Dr. Abshire: A fine example of this characteristic was when – after he had referred to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” – he came to an agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland to reduce nuclear weapon stockpiles and to limit production of entirely new types of nuclear weapons.
President Reagan had the rare ability to adapt to changing political developments and his presidency should be a model for future presidents.
Handling tough moments takes character to
Steve: And in the end - for pauper, prince, president or pope ...
In scandal or crisis,
character is the rock of the realm.
About Dr. David Abshire:
David M. Abshire is President and CEO of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Vice Chairman of the Board of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., which he co-founded in 1962, and served as its chief executive for many years. In July 2002, he was elected President of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation of New York.
In addition to numerous journal, magazine and newspaper articles, Dr. Abshire is the author of six books: “The South Rejects a Prophet,” 1967;” International Broadcasting: A New Dimension of Western Diplomacy,” 1976; “Foreign Policy Makers: President vs. Congress,” 1979; “Preventing World War III: A Realistic Grand Strategy,” 1988; “Putting America's House in Order: The Nation as a Family, with Brock Brower; and “Saving the Reagan Presidency . He is editor of "Triumphs and Tragedies of the Modern Presidency: Seventy-Six Case Studies on Presidential Leadership," 2002, and author of CSP publications: "The Character of George Washington," 1999; and "Lessons for the 21st Century: Vulnerability and Surprise December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001." He is contributing editor to "Vietnam Legacy," 1976; "Détente: Cold War Strategies in Transition," 1964; and "The Global Economy," 1990. He also co-edited "National Security," 1963 and edited "The Growing Power of Congress," 1981. He is founding editor of The Washington Quarterly.
David Abshire has served our nation for more than 40 years and has served as President and CEO of the Center since 1999. He co-founded the Center for Strategic and International Studies, served as U.S. Ambassador to NATO, and was President Reagan's Special Counselor during the Iran-Contra scandal. CSIS will join CSP in honoring Dr. Abshire by offering four Capitol Hill sessions on leadership and national security, hosted by Senator John Warner. For more information, or to reserve an Awards Dinner table or seat, please contact Mary O'Connor or Jessica Morgan at 202-872-9800 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Not too much about Steve Kayser:
Hmm … makes me want to cut off my typing fingers looking at all those journals and books Dr. Abshire has written. When does he ever get any work done?
Steve Kayser is an award-winning business writer that has been featured in a marketing best practices case study by MarketingSherpa, Purple Cows (by Seth Godin), "A Marketer's Guide to e-Newsletter Publishing," Innovation Quarterly, B2B Marketing Trends and Faces of E-Content Magazine. His writings have appeared in Corporate Finance Review Magazine, CEO Refresher, Entrepreneur Magazine, Business 2.0, and Fast Company Magazine among others.
In addition, Steve has also won screenwriting awards from The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science Nicholl Screenwriting Competition, Writers Digest Screenwriting Competition, and Project Greenlight.
In his spare time, Steve models kilts for Un-Vanity, Non-GQ and The Manly Kilt Wearing Man’s monthly magazines.