THE Iran-contra affair, as portrayed in the current hearings, represents a grave distortion of the rivalry between White House and Congress. What should have been handled within the constitutional framework of separation of powers - addressed by the President and his Cabinet and staff on the one side, and by legislative committees and floor votes in the House and Senate on the other - became in the eyes of White House operatives an institutional war. This was a war against Congress. Lying, deceit, falsifying memos, shredding of evidence, all the tricky business of dealing with rogue foreign agents - these were turned against elected representatives of the American people. Oliver North is not really what this confrontation is all about:
Is Congress really the enemy?
Is Capitol Hill one more objective to be taken by a marine loyal to his commander in chief?
Does not Mr. North face equally beribboned patriots among congressmen across the hearing room from him?
Was the Boland amendment, intended as a compromise on contra funding, instead a Marxist document to be circumvented by construing the National Security Council as exempt from its rules?
Was it smart to rely on some stratagem that had to be whispered, any record of it shredded lest it be known, instead of one that could be argued openly if not shouted from the Capitol steps?
North has certain things going for him. A lot of Americans may admire his can-do bravado. If, as he says, he was made the designated fall guy, many Americans will see him sympathetically as a victim - put out in the cold by the White House as well as verbally flogged by Congress. More will be known about North's veracity when his superiors testify.
It is fair to observe that Congress has badgered the White House over foreign policy since the Vietnam war, when it was misled by President Johnson. It went after President Nixon during Watergate. The public hearing has become a legislative weapon. But the Reagan administration itself aroused this hornet's nest.
If the President had truly presided over the Cabinet government he had promised, this would not have happened. To hear Oliver North hold forth on hostages, terrorists, and support for the contras, one wonders where the secretary of defense is, or the secretary of state. Was not the White House chief of staff, not a third-level NSC staffer, in charge of congressional relations?
This President often does not want to negotiate with Congress - on the budget, judicial appointments, or foreign policy. He often does not want even to hear dispute from Cabinet officers. This side of the President's view of governance has its problems - and these are on display in the current Washington hearings.