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Letting the chips fall

SO limited immunity has been granted to Oliver North for testifying before Congress, ostensibly to speed up and round out the congressional inquiry into the Iran-contra affair. Independent counsel Lawrence Walsh wanted no immunity granted at all, but apparently feels Congress's action - starting closed-door interrogation of North in mid-June, but delaying public testimony until at least mid-July - will not compromise his criminal investigation. What's done is done. But is there a need to rush to judgment? The American people are not undergoing any crisis of confidence in their political system, in general. As for President Reagan, his approval rating continues at about 50 percent. This is nearly double Jimmy Carter's standing in the summer of 1979, when long gasoline lines and Mr. Carter's conjuring up of a fictitious national ``malaise'' made the public wonder what was going on in the White House. It is more than double Richard Nixon's standing when he took the Watergate nose dive.

The Iran-contra hearings to date have turned up some sorry disclosures: lies and near-lies from top government officials to the public's elected representatives in Congress; diversions of money by ``patriotic'' arms merchants to finance sports cars, private aircraft, visits to ``fat farms''; real estate schemes to cloak gifts of money to family members of the Iran-contra masterminds; a lack of backbone by members of the administration to ask the few direct questions that would have blown the cover on the whole affair long before it could develop into a full scandal; testimony that North sought action on the hostages to help the President's party retain Senate control in the 1986 elections.

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But better to have it out, and let the chips fall where they may.

The Reagan administration will have to revise its blanket statements of support for people like North and Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams.

It is ironic that immunity for North on Capitol Hill was sought by advocates for an administration that has curbed legal assistance to the poor and sought to strengthen the powers of prosecutors against the accused.

Given North's involvement, along with the sweetheart deals that apparently would have netted him $200,000 to $2million from the arms negotiations, how can anything he says help Mr. Reagan's standing? If the public doesn't believe the President's avowals of ignorance about the deals, why should it believe North? The most crucial testimony might have come from the late central intelligence chief, William Casey.

Congress is to be congratulated on the directness, dispatch, and relative dispassion of its inquiry. The American people have reason to feel assured that the investigations are proceeding apace.

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