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The Best Books on The Iran-Contra Affair, According to Leon Neyfakh

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If you couldn’t get enough of the podcast Slowburn’s deep dives into Watergate and the Clinton impeachment, or of Fiasco’s close look at the Bush versus Gore legal battle, we have good news: This week, host Leon Neyfakh returns with the second season of Fiasco, this time honing in on the Iran-Contra affair. For those who would like some background information before diving into the new season, or who would simply like to learn more about the political scandal on their own, we asked Neyfakh to put together a comprehensive list of books on the subject.

A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs by Theodore Draper

What’s maddening about Iran-Contra is that there are multiple conflicting accounts of pretty much every key event, conversation, and meeting. After hitting my head against a wall trying to square one person’s testimony with the remembrances of another, I found comfort in Draper’s book, which treats inconsistencies in the source material as amusing mysteries rather than annoying problems.

Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984-1988 by Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus

A marvel of co-authorship by Jane Mayer, who covered Reagan for the Wall Street Journal, and Doyle McManus, who covered Central America for the L.A. Times. The best, most fun book to start with if you want to mainline Iran-Contra in the form of a political thriller; it opens with a scoop from Mayer about how close Reagan came to being removed from office by way of the 25th Amendment.

The Nightingale's Song by Robert Timberg

This book of intertwined character studies provides fine-grained portraits of Reagan advisers Bud McFarlane, who first brought the idea of the Iran weapons deal to the president, and John Poindexter, who approved the use of profits from the Iran deal to fund the contras in Nicaragua. Makes the case that Iran-Contra is secretly a story about the Vietnam War.

Iran-Contra: Reagan's Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power by Malcolm Byrne

This book, written by the unofficial dean of Iran-Contra studies, splits the difference between academic meticulousness and journalistic flare. When we’re fact-checking season two of Fiasco, the phrase most commonly uttered in our office tends to be, “Check Byrne.”

Lives, Lies and the Iran-Contra Affair by Ann Wroe

Wroe, the obituaries editor of the Economist, treats Iran-Contra as an opera or a novel to be analyzed and prodded. Reading this swirling book-length essay, you can tell Wroe is moved by Iran-Contra, and it’s a pleasure to be inside her mind as she works through it and lets it inspire her.

Opening Arguments: A Young Lawyer's First Case : United States Vs. Oliver L. North by Jeffrey Toobin

Before Jeff Toobin was a famous journalist, he was a pipsqueak of a lawyer working in the office of the Iran-Contra independent counsel. After Toobin quit and wrote this book, his former boss tried to stop it from coming out, and Toobin’s publisher sued him. “Opening Arguments” won’t tell you a ton about Iran-Contra, but as a memoir of working inside a tornado, it moves.

On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency by Mark Hertsgaard

After reading a bunch of big omnibus books on a topic, there’s nothing I love more than finding a super-narrow one that zooms in on a single aspect of it. On Bended Knee, published in the fall of 1988, is about the Reagan administration’s handling (and manhandling) of the press corps.

Hostage Bound, Hostage Free by Ben and Carol Weir with Dennis Benson

A window into the hostage crisis at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal, this is the memoir of a man taken prisoner in Lebanon in 1984 and the wife who tried to bring him home. Weir was freed in exchange for some 500 American-made anti-tank missiles. To make matters more interesting, both Weir and his wife were harsh critics of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and thought the kidnappers made some good points in their criticisms of America. (Some in the Reagan administration called him Benjamin “Weird.”)

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The Best Books on The Iran-Contra Affair