THE spinners have been at work to put the best, and worst, face on the Iran-contra scandal ever since it broke a year ago, Nov. 5. ``Some mistakes were made,'' says Rep. Dick Cheney, who leads the Republican defensive team on the bipartisan Iran-contra committees. ``But we don't believe the Constitution was trashed or that democratic principles were transgressed during the course of these events.''
Consider: White House staff, the National Security staff, the Central Intelligence Agency, all under new management. The President's credibility abroad on issues like ``no deals'' with hostage-takers was destroyed. The administration's claim to moral authority for pursuing the contra war in Nicaragua was undercut. The nation's newspapers and airwaves were dominated for weeks by a parade of previously unremarkable figures: Fawn Hall, Lt. Col. Oliver North, Rear Adm. John Poindexter - the latter two under investigation by an independent prosecutor for possible criminal behavior. The attorney general is still sharply criticized for a slapdash initial inquiry that allowed gross shredding of documents.
Cabinet and White House management relations were poisoned by mistrust. The CIA chief apparently kept even from the President the diversion of Iran arms sales money to the contra bank accounts. The CIA director apparently had in mind creating his own clandestine operations program that would be unaccountable to Congress or anyone else.
Congress was deliberately misled by high State Department officials who are still in place and trying to rehabilitate their careers.
Did the President know about the diversion? This was the high-energy question through much of the summer's hearings. Colonel North said he sent five separate memos to Mr. Reagan on the subject, but Admiral Poindexter says he did not submit them to the President for approval. We still don't know for sure, according to the Iran-contra committees' report. Absent conclusive proof here, the President gets the benefit of the doubt.
Reagan should have known what his administration was up to. His hands-off management style was allowed to degenerate into a look-Ma-no-hands performance.
Not all was lost, however. The administration has paid a price for attempting to subvert the constitutional role of Congress in foreign relations. But the balance is being restored. The White House this week has reached a compromise with Congress on crucial arms control issues that permits passage of a new military spending bill as well as progress on an arms control pact with the Soviets. The compromise would keep the administration from taking any steps during the 1988 budget year, through next September, to act on its broad interpretation of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. No key tests of the administration's Strategic Defense Initiative (or ``star wars'') technology need occur during this period anyway, but at least the pact keeps the President from moving unilaterally on his position until near the end of his term, when the issue will pass over to his successor.
The administration is on a far better course today than it was a year ago. Big mistakes were made. Big lessons learned.