MANY Americans will sigh in relief when the words "Iran-contra" finally fade from headlines. But President Bush's Christmas Eve pardon of six men involved in the controversy did not provide the occasion for that sigh.
The president's action effectively short-circuits further legal initiatives by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, including the trial of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. That trial might have aired new information about Mr. Bush's own knowledge of Iran-contra.
Some Democratic members of Congress, wanting to get at that information, may hold hearings on the pardons. Democrats, however, are far from united on extending Iran-contra's life. Many would as soon see Bill Clinton come to office in a capital free of that scandal.
But the desire to close the book should not obscure the point of the story. Though the only crimes actually prosecuted by Mr. Walsh were the "peripheral" ones of lying to Congress and withholding information, those offenses undermine the right functioning of government. And the central misdeed - an administration's decision to use underhanded, covert methods to thwart the will of the legislative branch - seriously challenged our constitutional system. That crime may never be prosecuted, but it must be re cognized.
Differences over policy permeated the Iran-contra affair, but a zealous special prosecutor did not criminalize those differences, as Bush claims. Overzealous "patriots" on President Reagan's staff did that.
In his final report to Congress, prosecutor Walsh can make known what he has culled from Weinberger's notes and from Bush's own diary, kept from 1986 to 1988. Both men say they want their jottings from that time made public. The revelations, however, are not likely to be conclusive, and the public, by and large, simply doesn't care.
People are more interested in seeing how well the new president gets underway. But Americans generally - and Washington politicians in particular - will do well to remember Iran-contra's lessons about the importance of truth-telling and overt policymaking in a democracy.