The first casualty

TRUTH, it has been said, is the first casualty of war. Beneath the surface of the Iran-contra hearings, the United States is struggling to resurrect the spirit of truthfulness from the wreckage of the warlike mentality that lately has governed its politics. The outcome of that struggle remains in doubt. After the most crucial part of Rear Adm. John Poindexter's testimony, the major subject on the weekend discussion programs was his credibility. He said he had never told President Reagan about the diversion of funds to the contras. The journalists on the screen debated the question: Was Poindexter to be believed?

What I got out of all the discussions was one central fact: If you knew whether the journalist was generally pro-Reagan or anti-Reagan, you knew whether he or she believed Admiral Poindexter. Those who have regarded the Reagan presidency favorably were wholly satisfied with Poindexter's credibility; administration critics were not.

These discussions of Poindexter's credibility raised questions about the credibility of the discussants themselves, and beyond that about the state of intellectual integrity in the political process.

There is a reason the statue of Justice wears a blindfold. The blindness of Justice is required for her to be able to see clearly. To weigh things properly, Justice must see the facts and logic of the case and be blind to any interests or partisanships of her own.

The factual question of whether John Poindexter spoke the truth or took the fall is - according to logic - wholly independent of the question of whether one wishes to see the President exonerated or found guilty of impeachable offenses. But when these important arbiters of our national affairs delivered their judgments on television, vision was clearly clouded by the absence of a blindfold. Partisan interest governed judgment.

This is part of a much wider problem.

You should not be able to predict an ``expert's'' view of whether a limited nuclear war could be kept limited from knowing his assessment of how well the Soviets have complied with arms control treaties. But in my experience you can. A politician's judgment about how well established scientifically is the link between industrial pollution and acid rain should not be inferrable from his ideological position on the propriety of government regulation of industry. But in general it is.

Across the political spectrum, the relationship between the world and our preconceptions of it seems reversed from its proper one. Rather than being open to allow the world to shape our image of it, all too often we allow interest or ideology to bend the truth to their purposes.

People will believe what they wish to believe. And people will tolerate only so much complexity, only so much uncertainty. But I believe our hold upon reality has slipped dangerously in recent times. And this, more than anything else, may be the legacy of the Reagan years.

As truth is the first casualty of war, a politics of us-against-them inevitably sacrifices the virtue of intellectual integrity. A perception of world politics in terms of a crusade against an ``evil empire'' has led to a variety of deceptions and distortions. Our government put forward sham arms control proposals that gave the appearance of pursuing agreements of the kind they were really intended to prevent. And it became increasingly possible to label people as freedom fighters or bulwarks of democracy simply because they fought against the friends of our enemies.

A fig leaf of supply-side economics covered over the reality of a major transfer of wealth from the poor and from future generations to the rich of today. And, as Howard Kurtz showed forcefully in a July 19 article in the Washington Post, ``Ed Meese's Blind Spots,'' administration of justice under Attorney General Edwin Meese III has revealed an astonishing ability to jump from principle to contradictory principle, the one constant being whose interests are served: us.

A gift for public relations and high-sounding rhetoric has obscured a politics of polarization and special interest.

The issue is whether the US can recover its integrity as an organized consciousness for making sound political decisions. All this has finally culminated in the Iran-contra debacle. The mentality of ``us-against-them'' eventually fixed a great gulf between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. In the war waged by the executive branch against the Congress, the principal weapon was a steady stream of deception. With the constitutional system of checks and balances itself under attack, a crisis has ensued.

The Iran-contra hearings are best understood in this context.

One might wonder - as many do - whether such a monopolization of our public attention is warranted. At the level of the immediate issues, probably not. But the hearings represent an effort of the US political system to restore its health.

What gives this inquiry its driving energy is not an attack on an administration that will, in any event, be gone in a year and a half. It is, rather, the issue of whether the US can recover its integrity as an organized consciousness for perceiving the world and making sound and honest decisions.

That a kind of disease afflicts our capacity to see and judge the world is evident not only in the testimony of those the hearings are examining, but also in controversies that range beyond the hearings in the wider political community. The surge of ``Olliemania'' was testimony not only to the extraordinary ability of one man to cast a spell transforming political facts into mythic drama. It also revealed the enormous public desire for a politics of illusion and deception.

The challenge of making more whole the intellectual process of our political system will endure beyond the end of these hearings, and beyond the tenure of those individuals now in power.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of ``The Parable of the Tribes: the Problem of Power in Social Evolution.''

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