Elliott Abrams: The Teflon Assistant Secretary

Article excerpt


Ollie North is gone. John Poindexter isgone. William Casey is gone. Even Don Regan is gone. But Elliott Abrams, who is, more than anyone, officially and substantially responsible for the contra policy that has been such a disaster for the Reagan administration, is still giving orders.

Despite serious questions about Abrams's involvementin supplying the Nicaraguan contras, the hard-line assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs appears to have ridden out the storm that felled his colleagues on the contra support team. Abrams and his staff were reportedly relieved by the content of the Tower Commission report. Since the outbreak of the scandal, Abrams has returned on various occasions to face his critics on Capitol Hill. Unlike North and Poindexter, Abrams answered every question fired at him. His political adversary on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Christopher Dodd, praised Abrams's forthcoming attitude. At a House hearing on future U.S. aid programs, Abrams was treated not as an object of scandal, but simply as a State Department officer who had a program to administer.

Abrams still has his job in part because, accordingto the evidence revealed so far, he has steered just clear of illegality, and in part because he has practiced the neoconservative art of deflecting even clearly legitimate criticism by attacking the left-liberal biases of his opponents. He has not always been as far to the right as he is now, but his enemy has always been the left.

No sex and drugs

In 1968 at Harvard, where the word liberal wasoften followed by "fascist' and Vietnam almost inevitably by "war criminal,' where Dick Gregory received more support in an election poll than either of the two major party candidates, and where the conservatives on campus split their vote between Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, 19-year-old Elliott Abrams was a lonely voice for Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey, the standard-bearer of cold war liberalism, was undergoing a process of political disintegration, unable to distance himself from a war that even President Johnson likened to a one-eyed retarded child. Amazingly, Humphrey allowed Nixon to paint himself the "peace candidate,' then prattled on about "the politics of joy' in the wake of the killings of Kennedy and King.

What drew Abrams--of liberal parentage anda progressive education--to support Humphrey? Idealism? What idealism could there be in supporting a worn-out candidate and a failed policy in Vietnam? Ambition? The future of the party, particularly for bright young men from Harvard, was clearly with the "Dump the Hump' legions, who, four years later, would coalesce in the McGovern candidacy.

Abrams chose Humphrey because the peacemovement wanted not merely to end the war but to smash the establishment with which he identified. Steven Kelman, one of Abrams's college roommates and now professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, recalls Abrams seemed uncommonly concerned about "the real world' outside Harvard. He remembers him as a "basically happy, well-adjusted, and unalienated guy. He had good relations with his family and was always far more oriented towards success, including monetary, than anybody else we knew.'

At Harvard, Abrams ensconced himself inAdams House, a hub of left-wing activity. He was definitely "different,' even from his own crowd of anti-SDS conservatives and social democrats. Clean-shaven, neatly groomed, and serious to the point of eccentricity, Abrams stood out on campus as a metaphor for the parents everybody had left behind. He seemed immunized against the common collegiate attractions of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll. His own theory as to why is that his Greenwich Village high school, Elizabeth Irwin, "constituted an inoculation of sorts . . .. Marijuana was all over Elizabeth Irwin when I was in high school. …