Everyman and the hearings
WHERE Everyman has a view, a certain modesty may be in order. People around the world have been able to follow the Iran-contra hearings close up on television and at great length in print. The joint congressional committee will come up with its summary soon. President Reagan will address the issue next week. Every newsmagazine, every syndicated column, and every breakfast table discussion has mulled over the testimony. Here are three observations on what went wrong in the White House that may not be prominently discussed elsewhere:
A trust in arms as a medium for influence-buying. This administration came into power believing in power. It is not alone in this. The entire Middle East framework of relationships is awash with the flow of arms. The irony of Western arms sellers to the Iran-Iraq combatants now finding themselves in the gunscopes of those arms illustrates the inherent vulnerability of seeking safety in the merchandising of arms - or the bartering of weapons for hostages. In the case of Nicaragua, security against the Sandinistas was sought in keeping an uninterrupted flow of arms - however financed - to the contra rebels. The breakdown in the contra funds-transfer scheme came not on the battlefield but at the command center in Washingfton - a rupture of trust among White House staff, the Cabinet, and Congress. Where arms-as-policy is concerned, neither the means nor the ends are reliable.
Accountability rests with the President. Mr. Reagan made the call on the transfer of arms to the Iranians to seek the release of American hostages. He did so despite vehement opposition from his secretaries of state and defense. One can argue over whether they should have resigned, or whether the President was misled by advice about Iranian ``moderates'' and the war allegedly tipping against Iran; but that does not alter the impression that, far from being the disengaged, marshmallow executive of popular lore, Mr. Reagan overruled his top executive Cabinet officers and went with the advice of his ``information'' officer, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Similarly, with the transfer of funds to the contras, the people most involved - Oliver North, John Poindexter, CIA Director William Casey - were carrying out what they took to be the implicit intention of the President to fund the operation. Early in Reagan's first term, Cabinet officers confessed they had ``broken their pick'' in trying to dissuade the President from a given course. Reagan may shrug ``Aw, shucks'' to the camera, but inside he can be almost willfully tough.
Pushed too far, personal strengths can become weaknesses. We were struck through the hearings by the many positive qualities of the witnesses, but how these were not enough to save the public servants - and the administration - from their own excesses. Oliver North's can-do patriotism took him into things he should not have done. John Poindexter's computer wizardry, his ability to organize complex matters, became a ``compartmentalized'' approach to National Security Council affairs that cut out needed corrective challenge from within the administration or Congress. Chief of staff Donald Regan's autocratic style, which took him to the heights of the brokerage world, and his ability to banter with the President could not keep the President from choosing what he wanted to hear from Cabinet and personal advisers. The President himself rose to prominence as a politician who hewed to values, rather than excelled at pragmatic consensus-building and programmatic details.
The point here is that no executive ever reaches the point where he can stop growing. The very strengths that got him to the top must be compensated for, balanced off, or he will become vulnerable to his own excesses.
The Iran-contra hearings have displayed an administration with unbalanced strengths.
Criminal guilt or innocence must be left to the independent prosecutor.
But it is a sign of the health of the American democracy that it can endure not only governmental foul-ups that prompt such hearings and weeks and weeks of testimony, but also the preachments - by politician, pundit, and Everyman - that must surely follow.