Walter Mitty and the Iran-contra hearings
EVERYBODY has Walter Mitty dreams. When I was a kid I would dream about being summoned from the bleachers at a Dodgers game to pinch-hit in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied and a man on second. Inevitably, the ball would rise from my bat like a homesick angel and disappear from sight far above the distant outfield fences. The other night I had another Walter Mitty dream. I dreamed I was a senator at the Iran-contra hearings.
``Colonel North,'' I said, ``like you, I want to advance democracy in Central America. But I am eager to know how you define democracy. Is it just a matter of getting rid of communists? If so, there are some governments in the world that do just that, but the people in those countries don't have the chance to vote freely, or throw the rascals out of office, or read newspapers that aren't official handouts, or sleep without fear of a knock on a door. If our main concern is to strengthen democracy in Central America, wouldn't it be a good idea to listen to what the democracies in that area are trying to tell us about how best to help their neighbor, Nicaragua? These neighbors have a plan for freeing Nicaragua of all outside interference. If this plan should be carried out and result in the removal of all military intervention, both by the Soviet Union and the United States, wouldn't this promote the cause of independence in Nicaragua?
``Have you had an opportunity, Lt. Col. Oliver North, to see what is happening in Costa Rica? The Soviet Union has no presence or influence in Costa Rica. Quite the contrary. The government in Costa Rica has been inspired by men like Jefferson and Franklin. It regards an educated citizenry as its prime asset. It is trying to lift its people out of the squalor that has resulted in dictatorships elsewhere. It can use our help. But it doesn't have a communist problem, so we are not very responsive to their needs. The kind of help the US is most willing to offer - tanks and planes and guns - is not the kind of help Costa Rica needs or is willing to receive. Costa Rica has free elections, free newspapers and broadcast media, and a responsible government. How do you propose we help the people of Costa Rica to keep it that way? If Costa Rica can succeed, wouldn't that serve as a powerful influence in the area?
``Apart from your ideas about democracy in Central America, I am eager to learn more about your ideas concerning democracy in the United States. This is the bicentennial year of the US Constitution. When you took your pledge of loyalty, Colonel North, it was not to your superiors or your branch of the service; it was to the Constitution. That Constitution sets firm limits on the use of governmental authority or power by any individual, inside or outside the White House. That Constitution was adopted, at least in part, as a reaction to historical examples of secrecy and concealment by governments at the expense of their people.
``The Founding Fathers gave a great deal of thought to ways of protecting the American people against arbitrary decisions by those in power. Perhaps the most important single contribution made to workable government by the Founding Fathers was their invention of a system of checks and balances. Our job at these hearings is to try to put `checks' on the arbitrary use of governmental power as well as to restore the `balances' under which the president of the United States makes foreign policy with the advice and consent of the Senate. There are times, to be sure, when the president has to act swiftly and decisively, but there is never a time when foreign policy should be detached from the constitutional process.
``Everything you have criticized in these hearings - the action of the Congress in limiting and defining the kind of aid sent to antigovernment forces in Nicaragua, the procedures required under the law for the use of public funds, and, in fact, the terribly cumbersome process of accountability and checks and balances - all this is consistent with the way a responsible republic was defined under the Constitution.
``The shortcut, the quick fix, the unencumbered and unvouchered use of funds, and the direct use of force may get things done, but they don't fit into any definition of democracy that the makers of the American Constitution would recognize. With you, Colonel North, we want to prevent the spread of communism in the world, but we don't believe that the best way to do it is by taking on the habits, methods, and character of the system we oppose.''
I was awakened from my Walter Mitty dream by the sound of the televised hearings turned on by my wife, for whom neither sound slumber nor the rude reality of Pacific Coast time could deflect her from the greatest 6 a.m. show on earth.
Norman Cousins is a professor of medical humanities at the University of California, and former editor of Saturday Review.