Public tries to sort out Iran-contra. The hearings have served as an education, says one pollster[BY]Laurent Belsie, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Iran-contra hearings have stirred the American public in a way not seen since the Watergate hearings. Many Americans - even those sympathetic to Lt. Col. Oliver North - seem to be taking a sober, second look at the issues involved.

``I'm a Reagan man. [But] it was a screwball idea,'' says Richard Shoenhair, sales manager for a hatchery and poultry breeding farm in Bancroft, Iowa.

``I was fascinated by the hearings. I was disturbed. I got a little bit emotional,'' says a retired telephone company manager in eastern Colorado. After watching them, she supports aid to the contras. But ``it was a little bit frightening to me [to see] the different attitudes of our people in high places.''

It is still too early to tell what conclusions the public will draw, pollsters say. They are divided over how much of a lasting impact the hearings will have.

``It's had a public-education effect,'' says Earl de Berge, research director of the Rocky Mountain Poll. People are becoming more aware of the complexity of foreign policy. The hearings have increased the level of public debate on Central America. People are learning how complex foreign policy really is, he says.

Atlanta-based pollster Claibourne Darden isn't so sanguine.

``What they took away from it is the confirmation that government does engage in covert activity. [But] don't expect any lasting changes of significance,'' he says. ``The hearings were sort of like an egg flipping onto a plate. It went `blump' and that was it.''

Certainly the most discernible impact of the hearings has been the outpouring of sympathy for Colonel North.

Telegrams and letters defending him poured into Congress during his testimony. ``North for President'' buttons have appeared. The networks reported his appearance before the congressional panels outdrew soap operas and game shows. A recent New York Times poll found that 73 percent of the public considered him ``a real patriot.''

North's testimony has also boosted the cause of the Nicaraguan contras, at least temproarily. Several polls - by the Los Angeles Times, ABC News, and President Reagan's own pollster - show that about half the public now supports aiding the contras, up from a third before North's testimony.

``The big question is whether it [the support] will stay that way or be short-lived,'' says California pollster Mervin Field.

Already, the fervor surrounding North seems to be cooling. ``It's sort of died down right now,'' says Alan Eisenson, producer for Miami talk-show host Al Rantel. One of Mr. Rantel's more successful shows since North's testimony: a survey comparing men's boxer shorts and briefs.

Adds James Dyer, director of the Texas Poll: ``I think that hero reaction probably dissipated rather quickly.'' Now, the public is left to sort out complex issues about hostages, covert activities, and foreign policy. ``I haven't seen a clear direction coming from this.''

Portions of the public have tuned it out.

``Anything about this-here contra issue, in the [Lehigh] valley, there isn't much said,'' says John Solt, an unemployed union man in Allentown, Pa.

Others are disappointed by the public reaction to North.

``Most people judge by the presentation of self when watching a speaker, rather than the issues themselves,'' says Mary Frances HopKins, professor of speech communication at Louisiana State University. ``Lots of us have hazy notions of the real strength of a representative democracy.''

Many people interviewed by the Monitor were still searching for conclusions.

``It's not like a good mystery,'' says David Allor, a professor of public policy at the University of Cincinnati. ``The heroes and the villains are so difficult to find.''

Covert actions are justified, he says, ``but they have to be very narrowly and explicitly defined.''

Adds the retired telephone manager in Colorado: ``I felt as a result of these hearings that other countries didn't trust us [to keep secrets]. I was glad I could hear it, but sometimes I wished it wasn't so public.''

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