Contra-temps

THE Iran-contra hearings continue moving across the American political map like a summer weather system. Testimony, as Sen. William Cohen (R) of Maine says of Rear Adm. John Poindexter's remarks in the page opposite, can occasionally flash like heat lightning. But there has been no sudden, single, overall illumination that has prompted observers to exclaim: That's it! That's what went wrong in the White House. Or in Washington. We know more about the personalities involved and some disturbing details. But the basic story remains what it was: Despite promising never to exchange arms for hostages, the President did that very thing; and despite express conditions for limiting contra aid, officials in the administration chose to circumvent what everybody else took to be the law, by diverting the arms-for-hostages money to the contra cause.

The prospect of a ``smoking gun'' of presidential authorization should not be made the threshold test of the significance of the hearings. The American public in effect docked the President one-third of its public support when the Iranian arms deal was disclosed. A majority still does not think he is telling the truth. Smoking gun or not, they are holding him accountable.

No Nielsen test of daily public attention should be applied to the hearings. It trivializes public affairs to rate public officials by star quality, as if we were watching ``Miami Vice'' or the soaps. The laws don't care what those who are supposed to uphold them look like or sound like. Nor should we.

Nor should Congress attempt to use the hearings to make testifiers cry ``uncle'' over what they have done. Two of the principal witnesses, Lt. Col. Oliver North and Admiral Poindexter, are under criminal investigation: Why should they adopt a posture of guilt? Some of their testimony has damaged the President's credibility; still, they retain a loyalty to their former boss.

It is up to the hearing process to disclose the facts that will lay blame or exonerate individuals, and to indicate needed changes in the White House's management structure, its relations with Congress, or other facets of the political system. It follows that to suggest the prospect of pardons for the testifiers at this point of the inquiry must be sheer mischief.

The Iran-contra hearings have stirred deep feelings among Americans of all political persuasions - witness the adjoining letters column. Testimony yet to come, by the secretaries of defense and state, attorney general, and the former chief of staff, may add more electricity to the air.

But we must welcome this human dramatization of the constitutional clash between executive and Congress, between the practical needs for secrecy and for openness, between what some officials took as an ideological and presidential imperative to support the contras and the dismay of those who think that preserving trust in the political system at home is the first line of defense against democracy's erosion abroad.

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