OLIVER NORTH'S sentence is not a ``vindication,'' as some of his supporters have tried to argue. It is considerably lighter than it might have been, but we agree with Rep. Lee Hamilton, the Iran-Contra hearings chairman, who called the judge's decision ``good and wise.'' We recognize that many Americans would have preferred Mr. North go to jail. North came to symbolize a tangled affair that mixed patriotic zeal with sly efforts to thwart the will of Congress. He became so enmeshed in one conception of the nation's interest - which focused on toppling a Marxist regime in Central America - that the broader public interest in preserving constitutional processes faded from view.
As Judge Gesell pointed out, North and his colleagues distrusted the elected representatives of the people and decided to craft their own policy. There's no doubt about the illegality of their methods and the dangers they pose.
The judge's characterization of the defendant as a lowly subordinate responsive to ``cynical superiors'' may understate North's zeal and initiative. Gesell was right, however, to weigh a commendable past along with the Iran-contra misdeeds. This is a first offense, and suspended sentences are normal under such circumstances. Gesell noted that public service - in this case involvement in an anti-drug program - would probably do more good than prison.
Iran-contra itself doesn't end with the North case. John Poindexter, one of those ``superiors,'' is next to face a jury. It's to be hoped the public will learn more about this episode, and how it can be kept from happening again, through that trial. North himself is not all that important. This drawn-out and costly process is, after all, a democratic society's means of self-examination and correction. That shouldn't be forgotten.