From the Post Archives: Sept. 19, 1991

Robert Gates And the Neverending Story...

By Marjorie Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 19, 1991

It comes down to this: a small, gray man of almost eerily symmetrical features, his face schooled into an expression of rigorous blandness, looking up at the red-draped dais of his inquisitors. In a resting state his lips seem slightly pursed, as though he balances an ice cube on the tip of his tongue.

With that patient, chilly look he has been listening as senators question his honor, his truthfulness, his fitness for the high office he is pursuing for the second time. It is the price Robert Gates has to pay if he wants to be confirmed as director of central intelligence.

"I arrived in Washington 25 years ago this summer," he told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence when he was finally allowed to speak, "with everything I owned in the back of a 1965 Mustang and no money. The Mustang is long gone, sold before it became a collector's item, and I still have no money." Carrying a hint of sacrifice for the public good, it was the standard Regular Joe credential required of a man nominated to high office.

But the normal theater of confirmation has a second subtext in Gates's case, a second ritual he must satisfy: He is briefly reanimating our intermittent struggle to arrive at a settled narrative of the Iran-contra scandal, of what it was and how much it mattered.

Questions about Gates's role in Iran-contra have so far dominated his hearings, which began Monday and continue today. It is deja vu all over again: The Hasenfus plane! The December finding! Roy Furmark! And slowly, dully, this committee of the Senate is adding a new layer of silt to the landfill: the Allen memorandum ... the Kerr deposition ... the mini-finding... .

It all serves to remind us that we never really decided what Iran-contra meant. Different people offer a panoply of reasons for this, ranging from frankly political theories -- the Democrats lacked the nerve to press their advantage -- to ruminations on the American character and its continuing disinclination to disturb the bones of Reagan's presidency.

But here we are, five years on: November will mark the anniversary. Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh is approaching his 80th birthday, and still his investigation grinds on, at a price to date of more than $ 27 million. Young lawyers who worked on his staff have left, taken new jobs, written books, had babies. Ronald Reagan has retired to California and a misty state of non-recall about the convulsion that almost destroyed his presidency. John Tower, who chaired the commission that first outlined the full scope of the scandal, had his own fall from public grace and died this year in a plane crash. The National Security Archive, which collects and publishes declassified government documents, has flourished on the output of Iran-contra, amassing about 83,600 pieces of paper.

And still the Senate asks: What did you know and when did you know it?

Even as Gates began answering that question on Monday, the Oliver North saga was sputtering to its conclusion a few blocks away in U.S. District Court. Walsh threw in the towel, admitting that he could not meet an appeals court's stringent requirements for proving that North's criminal conviction on three felony counts was untainted by his forced testimony in the congressional hearings of four summers past. The scandal's central figure, who had come as close as anyone to giving Iran-contra a coherent narrative form, was finally out of the picture.

And still the senators asked: What did Casey tell you? What did you know about North? Why didn't you ask Poindexter?

At issue are specific questions of whether Gates, as deputy to the late CIA director William J. Casey, knew that the National Security Council was engaged in a secret effort to resupply the contras, and that profits from the sale of arms to Iran were being diverted to that effort. Witnesses who will testify today have contradicted Gates's past testimony on these points, saying he learned of the diversion earlier than he acknowledges and may have participated in efforts to obscure it once the scandal broke.

But, barring unforeseen bombshells in the course of the testimony, Gates is likely to be confirmed in the end. The committee will never quite scratch the itch, address the root restlessness, that has irritated American political life for the past five years.

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© 1991 The Washington Post Company