A US power struggle of immense proportions

THE most dramatic moment in the hearings thus far happened offstage. As depicted by Rear Adm. John Poindexter, it went like this: He was with President Reagan right after the approving of the diversion of funds from United States arms sales to Iran to the Nicaraguan contras. Like Lt. Col. Oliver North, he thought it was a ``neat idea,'' this clever way of suckering the Ayatollah into helping the rebels. He said he considered, for a moment, telling Ronald Reagan ... then decided not to. That may have been the turning point in the Iran-contra affair. The President insists that, had he known, he would have rejected such a proposal. Yet he was doing all he could to help the contras.

Would he have felt the ``neat idea'' went too far? Here the public would divide up on its answer, often along political lines. Many people would say the President would have dynamited the proposal right then and there. In support of this position is Donald Regan's assertion, expressed strongly at the hearings, that for the President to have gone along with the project would have been entirely out of character ``with the Ronald Reagan I know.'' Many Americans, however, taking into account the President's deep and abiding support for the contras' cause, probably would question whether Mr. Reagan would have been able to say no.

We'll never know for sure. But it's interesting to cite this episode, since it illustrates what we all have viewed. Because, except for Colonel North, the congressional committee already knew, from documents and depositions, what the witnesses were going to say, this really wasn't an inquiry. It was indeed, as New York Times analyst R.W. Apple Jr. says, basically a political theater. And what a wonderful theater it has been!

Admiral Poindexter was the pipe-smoking, tightly controlled quiet man. Had he sacrificed himself in protecting the President, or was he concealing something with all those ``can't recalls''?

North emerged as the memorable figure at the hearings. His aggressive counterattack put the panel on the run. He said he had done what he thought was right.

Further, he insisted that he believed the President knew about the diversion, and was behind him in everything he did to help the contras. His lying and shredding were, he insisted, part of this same good cause.

North's impassioned performance played beautifully around the US. Some critics said or hinted that North should have known that what he was doing was unlawful - and that he should have said ``no'' regardless of what he thought his orders were. But this criticism was only a tiny voice compared with the loud huzzahs of public approval.

But later, Attorney General Edwin Meese conceded that North must have lied to him - or in sworn testimony before the committees.

Secretary of State George Shultz turned out to be the prince of candor. The panel loved him, because he was telling about battles within the administration - a story of who said what which is usually kept confidential.

And they liked him, too, because he tended to support the convictions of most of them: The arms sale had been for hostages.

Had Mr. Shultz done all he could to dissuade President Reagan from this folly? Should he have resigned? Shultz said no, he needed to stay on and help the President. These questions, clearly, were not resolved.

One could go on and on. Each witness in effect took a screen test. Some who appeared before the committee were drab and faded away - their names forgotten in a moment. Others made their TV image an indelible impression.

What can we conclude?

This public airing has been a valuable exercise in making our system of government work. It has had a purifying effect. Shultz, for one, had some very helpful suggestions: There should be better sharing and more communication between the executive and legislative branches. We should move to some kind of cabinet government, with the cabinet secretaries having offices in the White House - and access to the president. These and other ideas for preventing future Iran-contra problems will be looked over - and, perhaps, put into effect.

But the hearings have had their downside, too. Critics from abroad have depicted the US as a country in disarray - seeing only folly in our putting our dirty linen on display. Further, it is obvious that the President's ability to get things done has been impaired during this process of self-criticism. For him, it was not a sideshow he could ignore. He was caught up in it and slowed down by it. His popularity has held up, though reduced a bit. His credibility, particularly on the question of whether he knew about the aid diversion, has suffered.

Finally, the hearings were a place where, as Mr. Apple underscores, Congress was seeking to win some points in the 200-year-old struggle between the executive and legislative branches for influence over US foreign policy. ``So,'' Apple writes, ``they chose televised hearings, just as recent Presidents, fighting the same battle, have used press conferences and electoral campaigns to take their case to the people.''

So the public has seen democracy at work, seeking to refine and improve itself. We have also viewed a power struggle of immense proportions.

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

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