THE Iran-contra arms-for-hostage deal found a US administration saying one thing to the Congress and the American people while pursuing separate and possibly illegal actions behind the scenes. In the 1988 presidential campaign, when the issue was hotter, then - Vice President George Bush's protestations that he was "out of the loop" of Iran-contra were made with almost as much fervor as his "read my lips" pledge.
Since 1988, both the complexity of Iran-contra and the messy and often partisan way it has been adjudicated have turned many Americans off. Yet it remains part of the nation's business and history. Last week a bit more of that history came to light, suggesting that not only was Mr. Bush aware of the arms-for-hostages deal, but also he supported it against opposition voiced both by then Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger - before the deal was made.
Notes dictated in 1987 by Mr. Shultz after he talked with Mr. Weinberger, who was angered by Bush's comments in the press, were made public last week in a pre-trial Iran-contra document. They indicate Bush was in fact in the loop. The Shultz notes recount: "Cap called me & sd [and said] that's terrible. He [Bush] was on the other side. It's on the Record. Why did he say that."
It's not clear whether Bush's role in Iran-contra will be raised by Democrats in 1992. So far they have chosen not to. The issue may be a non-starter, given its lack of popularity and a public impression that too many officials have been brow-beaten by an inconclusive investigation. The White House has stonewalled the question. Iran-contra is not a central political issue. Nor should it be. But in a campaign where one side is making trust its central theme, that side must be able to back up its position and even answer questions relating to it.
The Iran-contra investigation and prosecutions have cost $35 million. But if they stop future leaders from bending rules and laws, they may be worth it.