Mr. Reagan and the impact of the Iran-contra hearings

WHERE are we in these riveting, dramatic hearings? It's a moment to take stock. Two of the leaders of a probe that has brought all America into the TV audience - Sens. Daniel Inouye and Warren Rudman - stopped by to tell a group of reporters Friday morning what they saw as the lessons coming out of the questioning: Said Republican Senator Rudman, who, incidentally, favors aid to the contras: ``The underlying lesson is [that] in a government run by people, if you operate in bad faith between the President and Congress, you are bound to have some terrible problems. I don't think this was a good-faith effort on the part of the administration in any way.''

And Democratic Senator Inouye commented: ``If, notwithstanding the best effort that Congress or the media can make, people in government insist on maintaining secrecy at the level that Poindexter and North did, then I fear for my country.''

Rear Adm. John Poindexter's disclosure that he gave President Reagan deniability on the diversion project does take much of the wind out of the sails of the congressional hearings. The intense scrutiny continues; but the spotlight inevitably fades as Congress accomplishes its chief objective: finding out whether or not the President knew.

But the major question remains: Has Ronald Reagan and his presidency been able to go through this immense challenge and still govern effectively? Obviously, Mr. Reagan is doing his utmost to recoup. We must wait and see what he can do. But it seems unlikely that, at best, he will ever be able to regain the clout that was his before this all began.

How did this all happen? The testimony has told us that the President himself knew and conceded to his top people that arms for Iran was a high-risk operation - one in which it would have to bring about the release of all of the hostages if it were to be regarded as a success. Otherwise, he knew that disclosure would mean big trouble.

So he took a big risk - and, obviously, lost. And it was more than a partisan uproar that resulted from the disclosure.

The most incensed about sending arms to Iran were the conservative hawks who are consistently admirers of the President. That group will never again be automatic Reagan supporters. This is a loss that will make it more difficult than in the past for the President now to rally the country behind him.

What else can we say about the present state of the presidency, still beleaguered by this continuing Iran-contra problem:

Lt. Col. Oliver North turns out to be the President's greatest helper. Indeed, in an ironic twist, the highly personable and particularly articulate colonel seems to have saved the congressional appropriation for the contras from being cut off again in the coming vote.

In fact Colonel North, through his impassioned pleas for the contras, while defending himself, seems to have perusaded millions of Americans - many of whom hadn't known the Sandinistas from the rebels - to express support for aid to the contras. So the polls show new support for the contras - some already indicating a majority of the public now wants that aid continued. The administration, seeing this reaction, may decide to ask Congress to triple the amount of aid.

But while North electrified the nation in his behalf, there is scant evidence that his newly acquired popularity has rubbed off on the President. Reagan, in the face of this protracted adversity, has maintained his popularity - although much reduced from where it was before the Iran-contra issue took center stage. At the same time, it seems that Reagan - while still popular - has lost his credibility with much of the public.

What went wrong?

People with different points of view, ideologically, may come to different conclusions on this. But one thing seems clear: The President thinks it was very wrong for Admiral Poindexter, helped by North, to carry through on the diversion to the contras of funds from sales of arms to Iran. He has said that he never knew about it and that he would have vetoed the idea if it had come to his attention.

So, starting out with Reagan's own position, we can only conclude that Poindexter and North let him down on diverting aid to the contras. They got the President into big trouble. So he let Poindexter resign and fired North. As Rudman says: ``The President would have to say that his people do not serve him very well.''

Poindexter, of course, says he was ``protecting '' the President, that ``the buck stops here.'' Says Rudman: ``The buck doesn't stop there - it stops with the President. Remember, it was Truman who said, `The buck stops here.'''

Finally, no one should overlook the tragedy involved in these hearings. The biggest diversion may well be that which has distracted both the President and the public from Reagan's main responsibility - governing the nation.

Reagan has tried to carry on, sometimes attempting to show that he is not letting the hearings and what is being said divert him. But everyone - including the President - has to know where the spotlight has been for months, and particularly during the last few weeks.

Those who applaud these hearings see them as very important to the American people, providing new insights into how the government works - and how it attempts to cleanse itself. Inouye emphasizes this point of view.

Detractors call it a ``circus,'' basically an arena where members of Congress can show off. Whatever it may be, the spotlight now begins to dim a bit. But Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, and Edwin Meese III will be testifying before it's over. So there will likely still be more fireworks.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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