“The Contra stuff didn’t take off nearly to the same extent as the anti-apartheid movement,” said Orenstein. “There were people who tried to get things going, but it wasn’t something that had a huge amount of activism.”
Some political groups still engaged with the issue of U.S. involvement with the Contras, but the Reagan scandal took a subsidiary role.
“The question of whether the U.S. should be supporting the Contras was the number two issue on campus, but the Iran-Contra affair itself wasn’t really a big issue,” Kobach said. “It didn’t generate its own student protest...[or] major debates.”
Despite speculation from Harvard professors and students that the scandal’s damage to Reagan’s legacy would be lasting, many today admit that Reagan’s reputation has survived the initial attacks.
“I don’t think that the public impression of the Reagan administration was forever soiled by the public response to the Iran-Contra,” Kalb said. “Yes, at the time, it was a major story and an embarrassing story. But Reagan had a quality about him that did not encourage flamboyant criticism.”
Nye found that Reagan’s effective damage control after the scandal won back favor.
“By owning up to the problem, and changing the personnel in the White House, Reagan was able to recover his balance in the last two years of his presidency,” Nye said.
More than two decades after the incident, Reagan is seen as a beacon of contemporary conservatism, ranked as one of the most popular presidents in history according to a 2011 Gallup poll.
“Obviously there were people who disagreed with him and thought it was a very foolish mistake,” Kalb said. “But Reagan was a Teflon president,”
Reagan’s ability to recover from the scandal was also helped significantly by his reputation as a personable figure.
“Ronald Reagan had real charm, real charisma. They called him ‘The Great Communicator,’” Lockwood said. “People just flat-out liked him.”
—Staff writer Victoria Fydrych can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer David Song can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.