The Iran-contra scandal has been reduced to just another item in the debit column of Reagan’s ledger—a stain to be sure, but not much worse than Ed Meese’s stock holdings, Noriega’s drug running, and Reagan’s opposition to plant-closing legislation. Three of the four men indicted in the scandal— including the president’s national security adviser— probably won’t come to trial on the main conspiracy charges. And Oliver North is considered a national treasure by too many people. The Iran-contra committee deserves much of the blame. In their book Men of Zeal, Maine Senators George Mitchell and William Cohen, two of the most impressive members of the committee, argue that it did serve a useful purpose by disseminating information quickly, but they also try to explain some of the panelists’ mistakes. Occasionally, they sound like the job interviewee who responds to the “what-are-your-weaknesses” question by saying he works too darn hard. Mitchell and Cohen concede with great candor, for example, that a major “problem” was that the committee chose its attorneys on the basis of their brilliant legal minds instead of TV good looks—but add that, darn it, they’d do it again. Their brutally honest self-criticism somehow makes them look better.

The title of this book certainly doesn’t refer to its authors. Mitchell, a Democrat, and Cohen, a Republican, worship at the altar of bipartisanship and reasonableness. When the committee appointments were announced, I thought it was brilliant for the congressional leadership to appoint mostly pro-contra, dull respectables to the panel. That way the investigation couldn’t be tagged a partisan, anti-contra witch-hunt. It would focus instead on arms for hostages, cover-ups, illegal wars, and the rule of law. Cohen and Mitchell held the same view. But we all got it backwards. The problem was not that the administration was populated by too many “men of zeal” but that the committee was stocked with too few. Excessive bipartisanship and over-reliance on nonpolitical hired help injured the committee more—and allowed the administration to get off the hook.

Fawn and Venus

But first things first. Did Cohen and Mitchell really write the book? Although legislators always insist they did, in this case the claim is entirely plausible. After all, one of its authors, Cohen, is not just a writer (The Double Man, with Senator Gary Hart) but a poet (A Baker’s Nickel). Unfortunately, Men of Zeal has a few too many “poetic” touches. The authors point out, for example, that CIA Director William Casey was “dead and thus beyond the reach of any mortal subpeona” and that administration officials were “snookered” by “fast-fingered merchants schooled in steamy street bazaars” The tragic Bud McFarlane “yielded [the words] one by one, as if he were giving birth to each;” his suicide attempt was an effort to “accelerate his mortality.” But nowhere would writer’s block have been more welcome than in their chapter on Fawn Hall. They note that Hall “filled the nation’s capital with helium,” leading serious-minded men to experience “moments of adolescent giddiness.” They know whereof they speak. Hall, they wrote, has “golden hair cascading about a fine-boned face,” projecting “a casual stylishness, reminiscent of actress Farrah Fawcett . . . . Fawn arrives at the witness table, Botticelli’s Venus yielded from a foaming sea.” Gentlemen, please!

Their admission that members of the committee did, in fact, joke about asking Fawn Hall for her phone number is one of an occasional gossipy nugget that qualifies Men of Zeal as a “candid inside story.” The book shows committee members obsessed with how the hearings could propel their careers, “an opportunity to step from relative political anonymity, reinforce one’s standing at home, and enhance one’s future national prospects?” One big fear of committee members: that Fawn Hall would cry while they were questioning her.

Most disturbing, the authors (without naming names) paint a picture of a rather cowardly group. McFarlane’s red-faced, “it-is-more-than-passing-strange” speech on America’s inability to combat terrorism succeeded, for example, in “muting” several lines of inquiry, they say. And when North began turning up the music, some congressmen went into full retreat: “The effect on the members of the committee was immediate and, in some cases, overwhelming. All America was watching. And all America liked 011ie, or so it seemed. Careers hung in the balance. Committee members began to worry about how many constituents would remember their feelings of antagonism toward their representatives on the next election day?”

Mitchell and Cohen argue that the sheer mechanics of the committee compounded their problems. Having 26 participants made it unwieldy. Why so many? The decision to form a joint House-Senate committee came after the leadership had appointed the separate committees. Creating a small joint committee would have meant rescinding invitations. Perhaps their biggest strategic mistake was setting a deadline for the report’s completion. That gave leverage to North’s attorneys, who threatened to drag out hearings if they didn’t get what they wanted. And it kept the committee from exploring important subjects, most notably the “off the books” covert capability.

The committee’s biggest problem, they say, was TV. The seating arrangement made them look like an imperial tribunal persecuting a martyr. Senate Chief Counsel Arthur Liman’s “dark penetrating eyes,” double chin, and accent were gruesome on TV. They cite the abundance of anti-semitic mail as evidence that he wasn’t telegenic. (Indeed, Cohen and Mitchell seem to use mail as a prime measure of public support or opposition, while it more accurately gauges the brain chemical balance of any district’s least stable citizens.) The anti-semitism apparently was weighing on them fairly heavily. At one point, when Republican congressmen with visions of 011ie endorsements dancing in their heads began complaining that Liman was going too hard and too long, Cohen came to the chief counsel’s rescue. Liman sent Cohen, who isn’t Jewish, an appreciative note: “But why does your name have to be Cohen?”

The problem, though, was not that Liman looked too Jewish or that John Nields, the long-haired House counsel, looked too much like a draft dodger, but that, as the committee tried to champion the “rule of law,” it consented to a rule of lawyers. It wasn’t until the fourth day of North’s testimony that a legislator questioned him; the cowards, it seemed, had to rely on hired guns to knock off a golden-hearted patriot.

Liman and Nields approached the Washington scandal with private practice sensibilities. Liman is a white-collar crime lawyer; in his New York world the motivating force for wrongdoing is greed. His questioning of the first witnesses, which set the stage: for North, emphasized that these men strayed because of money. It’s true Secord and Hakim may have been so motivated—obviously a peril o1 privatizing foreign policy—but North and Poindexter were not. Liman didn’t seem to understand that ideology can fuel zealotry as much as money.

For his part, Nields focused excessively on questions of legality and the simplistic notion that secrecy per se is bad. He was not capable of articulating major themes the way politicians are. Say what you will about congressmen, the one thing they know better than lawyers is how to communicate a political idea. They can dress it up in corny metaphors, say it with a country lilt, and march into it with a patriotic drumroll. The politicians at the hearings emphasized not just the officials’ disrespect for “the law” but their contempt for democracy, common sense, honesty, and accountability. Nields, on the other hand, will be remembered for clumsily asking North about what happened at “two thousand” hours– North corrected the Yale graduate: “Twenty hundred . . . military time ?’—and offering the question that prompted the lieutenant colonel’s Abu-Nidal-wants-to-murder-my-little-girl defense for illegally accepting gifts and falsifying records. (Interestingly, Mitchell and Cohen say North’s attorney, Brendan Sullivan, requested that the committee start off by questioning his client about the security gate. That should have been a clue that North was preparing something special.)

The diversion diversion

When the committee hastily voted to give North and Poindexter limited-use immunity, it made an important decision. The scandal could be judged in either a legal forum or a political forum. They chose the political forum believing that getting the facts out quickly was of supreme importance. Unfortunately, they then threw away their political tools and pressed the case as if it were a trial. Apolitical lawyers would lead, and partisanship would be sublimated. (In fact, partisanship is considered a bit of a swear word with Cohen and Mitchell. A promotional insert for the book brags that it is “quintessentially nonpartisan .”) But the quest for consensus ultimately undermined the committee’s performance. At least one major strategic mistake— allowing Sullivan to dictate the terms of North’s testimony—was made because Inouye and the Republican vice-chairman, Warren Rudman, wanted to avoid a partisan split. In reality, Rudman acted as de facto cochairman. In some cases that was probably a plus: his questioning was often among the most piercing. But as committee spokesman, Rudman also helped keep the focus on what the president knew about the diversion. Reagan’s knowledge of the diversion was clearly an important question. But the fixation on it ultimately steered attention away from equally serious issues—like what Reagan knew about the contra resupply effort and what the rest of the U.S. government was up to. Ironically, the committee’s leadership could have been quite different: Byrd was going to appoint Mitchell chairman but feared he would be seen as too partisan.

Of course at the same time the committee was losing the political battle it was also endangering the independent counsel’s criminal case. Granting immunity gave Lawrence Walsh less time to prepare and dramatically complicated his task. Ideally, an immunity offer could have been a bargaining chip to get more favorable conditions for North’s testimony. Instead, Brendan Sullivan dictated his terms: North could not be recalled as a witness; he would testify earlier rather than later; Sullivan himself would certify compliance with the subpoena; and North would not be questioned ahead of time, as all the other witnesses had been. Had they pre-interviewed North they might have been better prepared for his sometimes unorthodox lines of defense. (Am I a pathological liar? Yes, of course I am, you old buffoon. But it’s lives or lies!)

Members acceded to Sullivan because they feared a lengthy court battle over the records. In private session, Mitchell argued that the committee should stand firm because it was in North’s own interest to testify. Mitchell proposed rejecting the demands, but Rudman and Inouye (with the crucial support of Liman) kept the motion from a vote to avoid a partisan split. “The committee had caved in,” Cohen and Mitchell write. “To get Oliver North to testify, we had let him set the time and terms of his testimony. This was the single most important decision made by the committee!”

Nields (occasionally) and Liman (invariably) were brilliant in eliciting information from the witnesses. And the committee’s staff did a remarkable job stitching together the scandal’s byzantine plot from thousands of documents and depositions. But the committee’s most impressive moments were the eloquent speeches of Lee Hamilton, Mitchell, Inouye, and the administration defender, Henry Hyde. The politicians proved more capable of putting North’s actions in context. A turning point was Mitchell’s speech at the beginning of North’s second week. Mitchell took offense at North’s implication that contra opponents are unpatriotic. True, Mitchell aimed low, but 011iemania fan clubs were already setting up P.O. boxes. And the key point was that he gave a speech—and speeches are what made North so successful. Mitchell writes: “Whenever North felt like it, he simply made a speech. Sometimes his speeches were in response to a question, sometimes not. I recognized early in the week that if I wanted to get a point across I had to do it myself, in a speech of my own” In fact, Mitchell and Cohen argue persuasively that, Sullivan’s protestations notwithstanding, the congressional hearing format gave North much more power than a courtroom setting. His nonresponsive answers would not have been tolerated in court. (Sam Irvin showed during Watergate that committee chairmen can control witnesses without seeming unfair, but it’s easier to cut off an H.R. Haldeman than an Oliver North.)

Mitchell and Cohen can’t bring themselves to admit that among committee members the respected-on-both-sides-of-the-aisle Democrats like Sam Nunn, Les Aspin, and David Boren performed poorly. In fact, the committee’s composition was a liability. The Republicans appointed four pro-contra senators and one waffler, Cohen himself. And in opposition? Three pro-contra and three anti-contra Democrats. No one was selected for his ability to make the case against the contras or for his oratorical abilities generally. Even John Kerry, who had led a subcommitee investigation on the illegal support of the contras, was excluded. On the House side articulate partisan Republicans were “matched” by a balanced and uninspiring group of committee chairmen and senior statesmen. In all, the count wis 15 to 8 in support of the contras, with three waverers.

It may have been an admirable goal to avoid discussing the merits of contra policy, but it was not one shared by Oliver North, Robert Owen, Robert McFarlane, Richard Secord, and the House Republicans. Without Democratic counterbalances, no wonder Americans lost sight of why it’s important that the National Security Council obey laws. The executive branch skirts congressional rules all the time, after all, and Congress really is so fickle about these things. But what the administration did was not the moral equivalent of HUD giving out an Urban Development Action Grant according to the wrong formula. It was an illegal war. If references to Sandinista atrocities had occasionally been countered with a stern reminder that Congress cut off contra aid in part because of contra atrocities, it would have given a human face to abstract legal questions. Families and villages were destroyed because of Oliver North’s can-do gusto. The point of such arguments would be not to turn people against the contras but to show why the “rule of law” is not trivial.

The disappearing lunch

In an odd way, Mitchell and Cohen succeed where the committee failed: showing clearly that the Iran-contra affair truly was an ugly chapter of American history, not simply a series of “mistaken” policies. Indeed their summaries of the hearings also provide an implicit criticism of the press, which too often failed to convey some of the scandal’s most appalling elements. You may remember McFarlane’s cake or Robert Owen’s travelers checks, but you may have forgotten, or never heard, some of the other outrageous examples Mitchell and Cohen recall:

►Poindexter testified that not only did North and Hakim negotiate for the release of the Da’Wa Kuwaiti terrorists but Reagan actually approved the plan.

►McFarlane, North, and Weinberger all testified that Reagan’s main interest in the arms deal was concern for the hostages. Reagan did not buckle to the forceful wishes of advisers and see the plan gradually “evolve” into an arms-for-hostages deal. He overrode the forceful objections of his two senior advisers. In fact, when asked who made the best argument for going ahead with the sale, Weinberger said, “Perhaps the president.”

►McFarlane said the Boland amendment did apply to the National Security Council. He and North simply denied the NSC was involved with the contras.

► Among North’s other ideas were kidnapping the Iranian ambassador and having the contras capture territory on die Atlantic coast of Nicaragua so Americans would rally to an Alamo-like stand.

►Shultz seems to have been misled not just by North and Poindexter but repeatedly by President Reagan. On two different occasions Reagan listened politely and apparently with an open mind to Shultz’s arguments against arms sales without mentioning that he had already signed the approvals for those sales.

►Innumerable important questions remain unanswered because Poindexter said 184 times that he couldn’t remember. The lapses covered major events such as whether he ever saw five memos on the arms sales and diversions, what transpired during his conversation with North about the president’s knowledge of the diversion, and what happened at his lunch with Casey on November 22. (The latter is perhaps most incredible: the arms sales had been disclosed publicly nearly three weeks earlier. Poindexter had caused Reagan to lie in public twice through misleading briefings. Meese’s investigation was underway. On the previous day Poindexter had destroyed the finding identifying the transaction as a straight arms-for-hostages trade. But Poindexter said he couldn’t recall anything about his two-hour lunch with Casey.)

►Was that security fence really going to thwart Abu Nidal?

►In addition to some of the well-known examples of Meese botching the investigation, the authors remind us of Mitchell’s line of questioning about the shredding that took place after the diversion memo had been found.

Meese: “Well, we don’t know whether those were relevant documents, irrelevant documents, or what they were.”

Mitchell: “Do you think Colonel North spent from 11:00 in the evening until 4:15 the next morning destroying irrelevant documents?”

Meese: “I think he probably did.”

Another incredible exchange occurred when Meese informed North they had found the diversion memo. North was visibly surprised. He asked if they had found a “cover memo.” Without questioning North on what memo he might be referring to, William Bradford Reynolds responded that no, they hadn’t found such a memo. Meese then asked North if they should have found a memo. North said “no.”

Finally, Mitchell and Cohen make an interesting point supporting the theory that Meese’s behavior was less incompetence than collusion. They note that each interview by Meese (except one with Casey), up to and including the one with North, was “conducted in a precise, professional manner: at least one other person was present [a member of Meese’s staff] and detailed, written notes were kept of what was said” But, after North, every interview was conducted without notes.

►Ronald Reagan still has not criticized Poindexter or North.

Ultimately, the most depressing thing about the Iran-contra affair was that it didn’t seem to matter all that much. In a few months Reagan will be saying good-bye to a misty-eyed nation, Poindexter’s lawyers will be thinking of ever more creative ways of avoiding trial, and North will be getting higher lecture fees and longer ovations. Fundamentally, people value other qualities more than adherence to democratic principles. Someone really fighting for something he believes in is admirable even if he’s running an illegal war. Cover-ups, lies, and obstruction of justice are okay as long as you later admit you lied and explain that it was for a good cause. That Americans still admire these men of zeal in spite of the Iran-contra hearings shows that the committee’s failure was monumental.

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Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, cofounder of Report for America, and a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.