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Iran-contra lawmakers vary in performance. Some are tough, others serve up `softballs'

The eyes and ears of the nation are on the events transpiring in two large chambers on Capitol Hill. They are the rooms where, on an alternating basis, the select Senate and House committees investigating the Iran-contra affair are jointly conducting their public hearings. In Washington, long lines of tourists queue up each day outside the hearings rooms, eager for a brief glimpse at history in the making.

For others, television and radio networks are providing live coverage of the hearings or nightly wrapups of each day's high points.

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As a result, it has become an extraordinary opportunity for Congress to grab headlines and TV time and, in this bicentennial year of the Constitution, to enhance the prestige of the legislative branch.

Some unexpected luminaries are emerging among the 26 congressmen and senators conducting the probe. But others, given their moments of glory under the klieg lights, are having a rough go of it.

Republicans are in the uncomfortable position of having to help explain an administration policy that even the President has largely disowned. Meanwhile, Democrats do not want to come across as churlishly second-guessing ``patriots'' who ``fought communism head on.''

Sen. James A. McClure (R) of Idaho, for example, embodies the discomfiture of Republicans on the Senate committee. He seems clearly unhappy with what he is hearing, but nevertheless tries to put the best face on it. Senator McClure allowed former national security adviser Robert McFarlane to deliver a rambling homily about the need for mutual trust between the executive and legislative branches. McClure failed to note that Mr. McFarlane, by his own admission, had misled Congress on the Iran-contra affair.

Other Republicans, like Rep. William S. Broomfield of Michigan and Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, use their allotted questioning time to let witnesses stress their patriotism and pure motives.

Another representative, Michael DeWine (R) of Ohio, has emerged as one of the chief apologists for the Reagan administration. Even McFarlane had to admit that a string of questions from Congressman DeWine were ``softballs.''

Some Republicans, such as Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine, seem faintly bemused by what they are hearing and are willing to ask hard questions - although they sometimes fail to follow them up.

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When Republican Sen. Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire hears his name called for questioning, however, the prosecutor in him rises to the challenge. Senator Rudman is tough, blunt, and openly skeptical. He seems convinced that much of what happened in the Iran-contra affair can be traced to a single motivating factor: money. Rudman, along with Democratic Sen. George J. Mitchell of Maine, is emerging as one of the best questioners on the panels.

Senator Mitchell's experience as a jurist shows. His questions are direct, probing, and clear, and they often elicit some surprising responses.

But another former judge, Sen. Howell Heflin (D) of Alabama, has been surprisingly unfocused in his questioning. Although Senator Heflin seems to be mulling over the legal nuances of what he is hearing, he has not made it clear what it all means in his questioning.

Another Southerner, Rep. Ed Jenkins (D) of Georgia, comes across as a common-sense country lawyer, earnest and well-informed. But behind the down-home demeanor, he is laying traps with his questions.

Sen. David L. Boren (D) of Oklahoma also is a lively questioner. His line of inquiry often takes a philosophical bent, and he often underscores points of principle and constitutionality.

Rep. Louis Stokes (D) of Ohio has homed in on specifics, questioning former government officials about specifics of covert operations and foreign policy. He obviously has been well served by his time on the House Intelligence Committee.

Regular committee duties apparently have hindered other members of the select committees, however. Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has seemed preoccupied as the military spending bill wound through the Senate. Despite this, his questions have been sharp, his skepticism evident.

His counterpart in the house, Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, has been so tied down by defense-budget battles that he has yet to appear for a single public session of the Iran-contra committees.

Rep. Jack Brooks (D) of Texas sometimes wanders about the room during the hearings, puffing on cigars. He gives the impression he is only half-listening - until he asks a question.

Then, he is bluff, blunt, and pugnacious. Mr. Brooks seems like a man waiting for the rascals to be flushed out from hiding. If the past three weeks are a prelude, it seems likely that some will.

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