Abrams, in hot seat over contras, is no stranger to controversy

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Like many of his generation, Elliott Abrams, 39, was seared by the Vietnam war and the domestic turmoil it provoked. But whereas the events of the late 1960s drove many of his contemporaries into radical politics and the counterculture, they had an opposite effect on the young Harvard student. Mr. Abrams became, in the milieu of '60s youth culture, a contra.

When antiwar activists were trying to shut Harvard down in 1969, Mr. Abrams helped establish the Ad Hoc Committee to Keep Harvard Open. It was ``one of my proudest moments,'' he says.

Critics of Abrams say the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs is living in a time warp. For him, they charge, it will always be 1969 and he must man the ramparts against the ideological and political assaults of left-wing radicals. It is this frozen world view, they say, that has made Abrams an unabashed advocate for the rebels trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.

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But his backers insist that, to the extent Abrams's views about Central America derive from his college experiences, it is because those experiences taught him to accurately gauge threats to freedom. A friend from Harvard Law School, Dan Hastings, says: ``Elliott had the rare personal experience to observe a genuine totalitarian group - the [Students for a Democratic Society] - exercise its influence in American life.''

Whichever, it is clear that Abrams is not a reluctant warrior. ``Opposing,'' he says, ``is lots of fun.''

At Elisabeth Irwin, a small high school in Greenwich Village that Abrams attended in the early '60s, the Adlai Stevenson liberalism of his middle-class Jewish parents seemed almost reactionary, and he spent those years - as he would at Harvard - resisting the more ``progressive'' political and social views of many of his peers.

In 1968 the young Democrat backed Hubert Humphrey when the vice-president's association with the Vietnam war put Mr. Humphrey beyond the pale for Eugene McCarthy's student legions.

After getting a master's degree at the London School of Economics and a law degree from Harvard, Abrams became, in turn, a top aide to Democratic senators Henry Jackson of Washington and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. Senators Jackson and Moynihan then were leaders of the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, some of whose members, Abrams among them, ultimately broke with the ``McGovernized'' Democrats to become neoconservatives.

Abrams's wife, Rachel, is the stepdaughter of Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary and a major neoconservative voice. Her mother, Midge Decter, also is a neoconservative writer.

Abrams worked in the Reagan campaign in 1980 and soon thereafter became a Republican. His current State Department post is his third during the Reagan administration. He previously served as assistant secretary for international organization affairs and as assistant secretary for human rights and humanitarian affairs.

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