The Tragedy of Robert McFarlane

He aspired to be the next Henry Kissinger. Instead, he became embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal.

By , a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House.
A close-up photo of McFarlane as he raises his right hand.
A close-up photo of McFarlane as he raises his right hand.
Former U.S. National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane is sworn in for a second appearance before the Senate-House Iran-Contra Committee in Washington, D.C., on July 14, 1987. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Former U.S. National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane, who died last week from a lung issue at the age of 84, was a cautionary tale in Washington.

During his two years as then-President Ronald Reagan’s third national security advisor, McFarlane aspired to wield power on the level of his most famous predecessor, Henry Kissinger. But McFarlane proved both too ambitious and too ineffective to wield it in accordance with the law, and instead he became embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal. Living with that shame proved too much: While others involved tried to evade responsibility or celebrate their role in the scandal, McFarlane eventually attempted suicide, feeling he had failed his country.

His story is a reminder of what is owed by those fortunate enough to work at the highest levels of government—and the toll that service can take.

Former U.S. National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane, who died last week from a lung issue at the age of 84, was a cautionary tale in Washington.

During his two years as then-President Ronald Reagan’s third national security advisor, McFarlane aspired to wield power on the level of his most famous predecessor, Henry Kissinger. But McFarlane proved both too ambitious and too ineffective to wield it in accordance with the law, and instead he became embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal. Living with that shame proved too much: While others involved tried to evade responsibility or celebrate their role in the scandal, McFarlane eventually attempted suicide, feeling he had failed his country.

His story is a reminder of what is owed by those fortunate enough to work at the highest levels of government—and the toll that service can take.


McFarlane was raised to serve. The fifth child of Alma and William Doddridge McFarlane, the latter a populist Democratic congressman from Central Texas, Robert was called “Bud” or “Buddy” from birth because the extended family included many others named Robert. After his mother’s surprising death from an aneurysm when McFarlane was just 9 months old, his father, who lost reelection a few months later, began grooming his brood for service with high expectations and a heavy hand, sometimes wielding a hairbrush, belt, or tree switch.

Robert Timberg, author of The Nightingale’s Song, which deals with McFarlane and fellow U.S. Naval Academy graduates working in Washington, recounts an anecdote about a day that McFarlane left a new shirt at the park. When the 8-year-old child’s father heard about the forgotten garment, he screamed, “Careless!” Then he roared, “You can never expect to grow up to a position of leadership if this is the kind of presence of mind that you have.” The boy did not offer excuses, replying, “Yes, Dad.” But the father continued, “You are a McFarlane! You’re not just an ordinary person.”

Years later, the younger McFarlane followed an uncle and a brother to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. At the academy, he demonstrated two career-long traits. The first was a sensitive streak—a crisis of faith during his junior year caused him to consider becoming a minister. The second was a habit of finding himself in the midst of history: While McFarlane was aboard USS Essex during the summer before his senior year, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the aircraft carrier and other U.S. vessels to calm a crisis in Lebanon. At 20 years old, McFarlane got his first look at a foreign-policy crisis as well as a first look at the volatile city of Beirut. Neither was his last.


Although McFarlane served two tours in Vietnam and later in Marine headquarters and Okinawa, Japan, he seemed most at home in civilian Washington, and the White House in particular. He was one of the first Marines ever to be awarded a prestigious White House fellowship and felt comfortable in Richard Nixon’s conservative, military-friendly administration. There he eventually worked for National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who had by then become a global celebrity despite the devastation he helped to cause in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

In Kissinger, McFarlane saw a “giant intellect, and the preeminent strategist of his generation.”  Observing Kissinger at the height of his influence—as he withheld information and masked his intentions from colleagues and Congress alike—the younger aide did not object. Instead, he was enthralled. Through smarts and off-book schemes, Kissinger appeared to McFarlane capable of exerting his will on the White House, Washington, and the world.

The best example of that, in McFarlane’s mind, was Nixon’s opening to China, which was masterminded by Kissinger. Looking back on those White House years, McFarlane said, “I really felt blessed, that there was a purpose in this, that I was really a chosen person to have such good fortune.” Those blessings continued under President Gerald Ford, and even during a few years in the political wilderness with other Republicans during Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

Upon helping former California Gov. Reagan’s presidential campaign, McFarlane was rewarded with the powerful post of State Department counselor—a job with far more power than the low-key title suggests, because the counselor serves as the secretary’s advisor and consultant, able to take on special assignments within the department and around the world. Whereas Secretary of State Alexander Haig struggled in the administration due to both personality and policy conflicts with colleagues he considered too inexperienced for their positions, McFarlane proved able to work with a president and other appointees who had little to no foreign-policy background.

One of those new to diplomacy was William “Judge” Clark, a longtime Reagan friend and former California State Supreme Court justice. Even though most of Washington would have agreed with then-Sen. Joe Biden, who said of Clark, “He doesn’t know the first thing about foreign affairs,” the president assigned him to the State Department. Clark worked well with McFarlane at State. When Reagan’s first national security advisor resigned in a scandal, the president gave the job to Clark, who made McFarlane deputy. Later, McFarlane wrote of his White House return, “We were back where we had started. Back home again.”

With little foreign-policy experience himself, Clark was content to let McFarlane aspire to Kissingerian heights. At one of McFarlane’s first meetings with the president in February 1982, a participant mentioned that critics argued Reagan did not have a coherent approach to global affairs. One aide joked, “Well, you don’t.” Then, as Timberg reports, McFarlane erupted, “Yes, you do!” He then proceeded to read off five items that represented a coherent policy, including deterrence, arms control, and domestic economic reforms.


In summer of 1983, Clark and Reagan gave McFarlane an assignment that appeared to fit the Kissingerian mold: shuttling around the Middle East to find a way to end the civil war in Lebanon, where Reagan had sent more than a thousand Marines to keep a lid on the fighting. For months, McFarlane and others on the National Security Council had been pushing—against strong resistance from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger—for the Marines to join the fight on the ground in Lebanon, in part to reassert U.S. might after Vietnam and to reshape the Middle East.

One night, amid shelling outside Beirut and frustrated with the resistance in Washington, McFarlane crafted a manipulative cable to Reagan, according an aide I interviewed for my book on the NSC, stating that it was time to “fish or cut bait” in Lebanon. To some at the Pentagon, the overly long, dramatic missive was so overcooked it became known as the “sky-is-falling cable.” Still, the ploy worked: Reagan authorized his military to use force to protect the Lebanese Armed Forces. As U.S. Navy ships opened fire on targets ashore, McFarlane garnered enough support for a cease-fire in Lebanon.

Unfortunately, there was no cease-fire in Washington, where Clark became a casualty to bureaucratic battles over Lebanon. When Clark resigned, Reagan named McFarlane national security advisor. But within a week of his appointment, a suicide bomber from an Iranian-aligned jihadi group drove a yellow Mercedes truck laden with 12,000 pounds of explosives through the gates of the U.S. Marine barracks at the Beirut airport. The Oct. 23, 1983, explosion killed 241 Americans.


The chaos in Beirut set in motion events that would nearly end Reagan’s presidency and McFarlane’s life. The new national security advisor was not chastened by the tragedy in Beirut—just the opposite. With Reagan uninterested or distracted, with fierce interagency rivals such as Weinberger resistant to using the military, and with fights between the Pentagon chief and Secretary of State George Shultz becoming the stuff of Washington legend, McFarlane decided to “risk doing something,” as one White House insider said at the time.

In 1985, Reagan, encouraged by McFarlane, approved an outreach to moderate elements within Iran, with which the United States had no official relationship since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The president saw the gambit as worthwhile to free U.S. hostages taken by Iranian proxies in Lebanon. McFarlane believed it was a Kissingerian strategic maneuver that could revolutionize geopolitics. Oliver North, a fellow Naval Academy graduate and Marine on the NSC whom McFarlane charged with the outreach, saw it as a way to further several policy initiatives at once, including support for the Contras, who were fighting the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

But before the secretive scheme caught momentum, McFarlane resigned. The national security advisor, as Timberg makes clear, was having some sort of emotional crisis: McFarlane disappeared during a foreign trip, and there were unconfirmed rumors of an affair with a White House reporter (which McFarlane denied). The fights between and with Weinberger and Shultz—and some White House colleagues—were also exhausting. With Reagan averse to confrontation, McFarlane had to try to broker a peace between the various players and get them to focus on Middle East peace, Lebanon, Iran, and more.

But McFarlane did not have the bureaucratic power, personal clout, or enough of the president’s respect to hold anyone to account. As one colleague said of McFarlane, “He’d only been a lieutenant colonel.” McFarlane himself concluded, “I wasn’t being listened to because I didn’t qualify to be in the inner circle.”

Even though McFarlane left the fights and his formal role behind, he continued to “risk doing something” as a consultant to the NSC, regardless of the law. In May 1986, he joined North and others on a flight to Tehran with a cache of weapons and a cake baked in the shape of a key to signify the opening of a new relationship. While the trip and the dessert came to nothing, and only a couple of hostages were freed during the whole scheme, North with McFarlane’s knowledge had begun diverting funds from the Iran arms sales to the Contras, which was expressly forbidden by Congress and not part of Reagan’s initial approval of the plot.


When news of what became known as Iran-Contra finally broke in late 1986, the scandal was serious and sexy enough to engulf Washington. A decade after Watergate, reporters and Congress sought to find out what everyone, including McFarlane, knew and when they knew it. Although North and others invoked their right under the Fifth Amendment not to testify, McFarlane chose to talk, testifying four times before congressional committees, though he was still prone to dissembling.

In February 1987, struggling at the witness table and tumbling ever further away from the intoxicating power of the White House, McFarlane became depressed and detached. He was scheduled to appear again before one of the commissions investigating Iran-Contra when he decided to take his own life. McFarlane survived, however, and after he woke up in Bethesda Naval Hospital, he went on to testify far more forthrightly than before. He pleaded guilty to four misdemeanors, was fined $20,000, and performed 200 hours of community service before being pardoned.

A few years later, McFarlane told the full story in a somewhat strange and unusually self-reflective Washington memoir. Special Trust includes an unusual version of the “ego walls” of celebrity photos that line office walls in the capital: McFarlane reproduces several pages of the notes he received from powerful friends in the days after his suicide attempt. In the first chapter, McFarlane also wrote about his motivation: It was akin to “seppuku,” he said, the “ceremonial rite in which a samurai who believes he has disgraced his country commits suicide in atonement.”

Yet McFarlane did not try to take his life out of shame alone. Instead, he was devastated by his own impotence and the cold truth that in Washington “when you’re out, you are really out.” Over the preceding weeks, the then-former national security advisor had written long, impassioned concept papers on how Reagan could regain the initiative in Washington and the world. When Reagan and others humored McFarlane but ignored his advice, it was the “turning point.”


McFarlane was not the first senior leader in Washington to struggle with depression or even attempt suicide. Nor will he be the last to cross the White House threshold eager to be the next Kissinger. But his travails in power and in the years after are a reminder of such ambition’s folly. Driven by his father’s lectures and lashes, McFarlane saw himself as a guardian. He did eventually tell the truth, but in forgetting that power is a means to service, not an end, McFarlane forgot what he was guarding: not his own influence but the nation’s interests.

At a moment when public servants are being judged for whom they serve and whether and when they tell the truth or not, McFarlane’s life is a reminder of the risks of making public service about oneself. McFarlane, of course, never held power again (not for lack of trying: Even as he lobbied for foreign countries, he volunteered for presidential campaigns). For those who feel destined to serve at the highest levels, his example should remain a powerful and sobering one.

John Gans is a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House. He is the author of White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War. Twitter: @johngansjr

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