Congressional drollery relieves drone of Iran-contra hearings

Rep. Henry Hyde was on a roll. It was one of the Illinois Republican's first shots at Iran-contra hearing glory - his turn to interrogate a major witness, former national security adviser Robert McFarlane. But Mr. McFarlane wasn't getting a chance to say a word. Instead, Congressman Hyde was defending the CIA's early role in aiding the contras. He was eloquent. He was learned. He was persuasive. He dragged on. Finally, he tied the strings of his argument together in a grand concluding flourish, and turned to the witness. ``I wish I could think of a question to ask you,'' he said, ``but I can't.'' Then he and everyone else in the room broke out laughing.

The discourse of the Iran-contra hearings is for the most part quite boring. Typical questions are about meetings and memos, as in: ``Did you arrange for a meeting in Country 5 before or after you realized that Country 3 had in fact been solicited for funds by an official who plays tennis on weekends with representatives of Countries 1, 7, and 13?''

But occasionally, as with Hyde's soliloquy, even the Iran-contra hearings are funny. For the lawmakers and journalists whose job it is to pay attention to what's going on these moments are welcome relief. Call them Great Moments In Hearing History.

Much of the humor is inadvertant - something that just pops out of the mouths of senators and representatives as they wing their way through their alloted question periods. Hyde has a gift for this, and enjoys it as much as anyone else. At one point he rhetorically asked a witness, ``What is it that the Soviets like so much about Nicaragua? The beaches?''

Complaining about lack of support for the contras, he said, ``We don't give them enough bullets. We give them unlimited quantities of the Boland Amendment, so they can roll up copies of it and throw them at the Sandinistas.''

Sen. Howell Heflin, an Alabama Democrat with a slow, Deep South voice, can also be counted on for the occasionally off-the-subject aside. Beginning questioning of contra leader Adolfo Calero, a serious moment, Senator Heflin cleared his throat and asked Calero to introduce his attorney to the TV cameras. ``I've always believed in giving the lawyers a little free advertising,'' said Heflin.

Other Great Hearing Moments:

``We have been engaged in an exercise of trying to define how many foreign leaders can be made to dance on the head of the President's contra program,'' - Sen. William Cohen (R) of Maine complaining that some lines of questioning were ``metaphysical.''

``I will try to abide by the chairman's clock, which I thought might be an Hawaiian clock and tick a bit more slowly,'' - Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire, referring to Hawaiian Democrat Sen. Daniel Inouye's tough enforcement of a 10-minute limit on questions. The chairman was not amused.

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