United States President Ronald W. Reagan in the Oval Office in 1985.
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GOP politician Ben Barnes said his mentor worked to influence the 1980 election in favor of Reagan.
Former Texas Gov. John Connally asked Middle East leaders to delay the release of Iranian hostages.
“History needs to know that this happened,” Barnes told The New York Times.
A former GOP Texas politician came forward after four decades to say he witnessed his mentor, former Texas Governor John B. Connally Jr., meeting with Middle Eastern leaders to deliver a message: Don’t let the Iranian hostages free until after the 1980 election between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
Ben Barnes, speaking with The New York Times, said he accompanied Connally on a 1980 trip through six countries in the Middle East — Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel — and watched as his mentor asked various leaders to relay the message to Iran. Barnes told the Times that Connally, who lost the Republican nomination to Reagan that year, was hoping to help him win in order to secure a position with the administration.
Connally briefed William J. Casey, then-campaign director for Reagan, about the trip afterward, according to Barnes. Casey asked Connally whether “they were going to hold the hostages,” referring to Iran — led at the time by Ayatollah Khomeini — Barnes told the Times.
The Times noted there is no confirmation beyond Barnes’s anecdote, but four people Barnes confided in over the years said the story he shared with the paper is consistent with what he told them.
Both Connally and Casey died before Barnes came forward with his account — Connally in 1993 and Casey in 1987 — and did not publicly discuss the events he disclosed while they were alive.
In 1979, Iranian militants stormed the United States Embassy in Tehran and took dozens of Americans captive over what they believed was undue US influence on their country’s politics. The kidnappings resulted in over a year of attempted negotiations and a failed rescue mission greenlit by the Carter administration.
During the 1980 election, Carter’s failure to get the hostages released before the general election, and the news surrounding it, is where the term “October surprise” originated.
Casey, who came up with the term, told outlets they feared Carter planned to ensure the hostages were released just before voters went to the polls to help sway their decision in his favor. However, this did not happen.
The captives were freed by the Iranian government minutes after Reagan was inaugurated as president.
Barnes told the Times the purpose of the mission to the Middle East was to inquire about the Iranian hostages, and Casey’s eagerness to collect details about the trip was evidence of this to him.
“I’ll go to my grave believing that it was the purpose of the trip,” Barnes told the Times. “It wasn’t freelancing because Casey was so interested in hearing as soon as we got back to the United States.”
The Times notes, however, that there is no evidence Connally’s demand to delay the release of hostages ever got back to Iranians or if it influenced their decision to release the hostages after the election. There is also no evidence whether or not Reagan was aware of the meetings, but he did contact Connally at least once during the trip, according to historical documents reviewed by the Times.
Prior to Barnes’s interview with the Times, rumors previously swirled that actors associated with Reagan may have tried to influence the election using the Iran hostage crisis, but House and Senate panels concluded there was no evidence anyone associated with Reagan’s presidential campaign attempted to delay the release of the hostages.
During his second term, Reagan became embroiled in scandal after selling arms to Iran despite a US trade embargo in order to release 7 American hostages in 1985.
Barnes told the Times he finally decided to share the details of the trip following the news that Carter admitted himself to hospice care.
“History needs to know that this happened,” Barnes, now 85, told the Times. “I think it’s so significant and I guess knowing that the end is near for President Carter put it on my mind more and more and more. I just feel like we’ve got to get it down some way.”
Barnes and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.