WASHINGTON (Dispatches) -- Robert C. McFarlane, a
former decorated Marine officer who rose in civilian life to be President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser and then fell from grace in the Iran-contra scandal, died on Thursday in Lansing, Mich. He was 84.
McFarlane, who lived in Washington, was visiting family in Michigan at the time. A family friend, Bill Greener, said the death stemmed from an unspecified previous lung condition.
McFarlane pleaded guilty in 1988 to charges of withholding information from Congress in its investigation of the affair, in which the Reagan administration tried in vain to establish ties with Iran in 1985 by selling arms which Tehran rejected and funnel profits to the contra rebels in Nicaragua, who were trying to overthrow the country’s Marxist regime, known as the Sandinistas.
Both parts of the scheme were illegal; Congress had imposed an arms embargo against Iran and prohibited American aid to the contras.
McFarlane, Bud to his friends and associates, was one of many players in the operation, which was run out of the White House with the cooperation of the Central Intelligence Agency. But he distinguished himself in its aftermath by his full and unequivocal acceptance of blame for his actions. Everyone else involved had either defended the operation as just and wise or sought to deny responsibility.
The episode stained the Reagan administration and raised questions as to how much the president was aware of what was going on in his own White House.
And its fallout left McFarlane so ridden with guilt that he attempted suicide in his home in February 1987. While his wife, Jonda, a high school English teacher, was upstairs grading papers, he took an overdose of Valium and got into bed alongside her. When he couldn’t be roused in the morning, he was taken to a hospital and revived. He subsequently underwent many weeks of psychiatric therapy at the Bethesda Naval Hospital.
It was a stunning act in official Washington. Many considered it an unconcealed howl of pain by someone from whom they would have least expected it — one of the capital’s most self-contained of public and powerful men.
Killing himself, McFarlane believed at the time, was “the honorable thing to do,” he said in an interview for this obituary in January 2016 at his home in the Watergate complex in Washington. “I so let down the country,” he said.
McFarlane always asserted — and he was supported by evidence — that he had been involved mostly in the Iran part of the scandal, and that he had been ignorant of the more blatantly illegal portion, the sending of profits from the weapons sales to the Nicaraguan contras.
The scheme began to unravel on Oct. 5, 1986, when a plane supplying arms to the contras was shot down in Nicaragua, exposing the mission and prompting an investigation by a joint congressional committee and televised hearings. Summoned to testify, McFarlane and his former deputy, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North — White House figures little known to the public until then — emerged into the glare of national publicity as key players in the affair.
Colonel North, still an officer on active duty at the time, was an enthusiastic player in the scheme.
In his memoir, McFarlane recalled that at first he had liked Colonel North, his fellow Marine, and thought that they had much in common. That changed after he discovered, he said, that Colonel North had deceived him about many of his activities.
McFarlane served a sentence of 200 hours of community service, in part by helping to establish an independent living program for the disabled in suburban Washington, and by setting up a computer program listing after-school recreational programs for area youths.
Before he left office, President George H.W. Bush pardoned McFarlane on Christmas Eve, 1992, along with others involved in the Iran-contra affair, including Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.
An unresolved question at the heart of the Iran-contra matter was the extent of President Reagan’s knowledge and support. The episode has been an important area of study for scholars pondering if Reagan — who after his retirement was acknowledged to have Alzheimer’s disease — had begun to lose his mental acuity in the White House. McFarlane, in interviews and in his memoirs, depicted the president as sometimes confused or vague about the details of what was happening with Iran and the contras.