It wasn’t that long ago, but it does seem like ancient history because Ronald Reagan has been purposely reimagined as a saint for the benefit of the Republican Party — they needed a modern saint — but nobody thought that at the time. There was a real question as to whether or not he was going to be impeached, how culpable he was for the blatantly illegal acts of his administration. Iran-Contra felons had to be pardoned by the next president in order to keep them out of prison. It was a big, big deal. The analogy that you just made with Nixon is exactly right. Nixon said, “If the president does it, it isn’t illegal.” Of course, Nixon lost that fight. Everybody laughed at him. He lost his presidency. And he’s remembered as the criminal that he was.
What Reagan’s administration said was, “If the president does it in relation to national security, it’s not illegal.” But, I think in part because Iran Contra was complex enough that people didn’t totally grasp exactly what was going on, he didn’t get nailed for it the way that Nixon did.
The most important thing is that when Congress investigated Iran Contra and came to its conclusions and said, “Actually, what Reagan did was totally illegal and awful, and we can never do this again as a country,” there was one guy, who was not very important at the time, who said, I sort of believe the defense. I think that if the president does it in the name of national security, then by definition it’s not illegal. The guy who said that at the time was a backbench Wyoming Congressman named Dick Cheney. He went on to be Chief of Staff, Defense Secretary, and then Vice President. And he changed the course of the country.
—Rachel Maddow, in an interview with C. P. Farley of Powells.com