WHERE do you stand in Washington to command the view? Where, across the District of Columbia, does the Potomac of influence and power flow? What is the point of perspective: Capitol Hill? The White House basement briefing rooms? The State Department's corridors? Can many of the capital's 10,000 journalists really learn what is going on? Can the politicians?
Not even the best-positioned legislators, such as Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, who chaired the Iran-contra hearings in the House, can be confident that what they see and hear is enough.
``Why didn't I see those documents?'' Mr. Hamilton said the other day, after learning that certain White House papers had been withheld from his committee.
Despite all the official inquiries, scrutiny by the press, the Oliver North trial, and other judicial proceedings, an exact appraisal of the Iran-contra events remains out of reach.
``My gut feeling is that we don't know all about it,'' Hamilton says. ``The complete truth about Iran-contra is going to be elusive. It is a complex event, with many actors. No one actor knows all the truth.'' Former CIA director William Casey, a principal in the arms-for-hostages, contra-funding scandal, has passed from the scene. Hamilton says, enigmatically, ``There are a lot of reputations to be protected in this.''
When someone as astute as Hamilton, after conducting an exhaustive inquiry, resorts to ``gut feeling,'' the rest of us should be modest indeed in evaluating our analytic gifts. People of judgment are few in Washington. Some working in the White House, on Capitol Hill, or in news organizations may have the judgment that commands respect. These people may network closely with others to keep abreast of change. Sometimes, it is the absence of events, the failure of people to act or appear, that matters.
Washington, after all, is a small town - the size of a community with two rival high schools, one on the Hill, the other down Pennsylvania Avenue. If you recall how word got around your old school corridors, you have the idea of how communications whip around the district.
When something is going on, it can be sensed by those attuned to the system. But often, as with the Greek chorus in classic drama, the listeners can get the interpretation wrong.
The press, often regarded as too cynical to see things straight, could benefit from more turnover. Veterans of White House service, former secretaries of state, may have an accumulated wisdom useful in sorting things through. Their detachment from current power struggles is an asset; they may lack, however, a feel for today's tempo.
Committee staffs can block the truth from legislators they serve. The recent pay-raise fiasco was a case in point. Home-district office staffs were inundated with expressions of disgust from constituents, while their Washington counterparts were registering no such alarm.
It is not easy to command the view in Washington, the center of a vast, complex, and mighty civilization.
The hub of Washington remains politics. But so many spokes derive from that hub - government agencies, embassies, business representatives, associations, all with influence and seeking influence - that it is difficult to position oneself to know what is going on.
Sometimes, from a distance, the public gets an effective fix on the powers that be. In Washington itself, however, it remains for the individual to put it together.
Bernard Baruch, ``adviser to presidents,'' used to sit on a bench across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, well out of earshot of anything going on. The bench is still there, with a plaque dedicating ``The Bernard Baruch Bench of Inspiration'' to the senior statesman on his 90th birthday.
On a fine June day, with Lady Bird Johnson's plants and flowers nearby, the bench is as good a place as any to divine what's happening in Washington.