For a little pregame entertainment on the field where Oliver North and his inquisitors will meet, Newsweek (July 13) has uncaged Gore Vidal and Patrick Buchanan to growl and snort and paw at the ground.

For Vidal, the novelist and secular prophet, North is guilty by association with the Marine Corps -- or, to be precise, Marine officers (no aspersions are cast on enlisted "real Marines"). When Vidal served in the Army in World War II, he alleges recalling, Marine officers were regarded as "by and large, a bunch of dangerous boneheads, exuberantly careless with the lives of their men. {And} their collective IQ has not risen in the last 40 years."

The nation, he writes, is in the thrall of Arthur Godfrey, played these days by Ronald Reagan, whose "age and incompetence have saved us from a dictatorship." Congress, for its part, "is thrilled by the attention but its members refuse to lift the lid on anything important," like the role of the CIA. Worst of all, "no one seems particularly troubled" by the scandal.

On this, he and Buchanan agree. "All America yawned," Ronald Reagan's former communications director writes. And then, understandably, he changes the subject.

The villain is not North but Congress, which is guilty of "complicity in permitting the enemies of the United States to consolidate a military beachhead on the mainland of North America." The liberal wing of the Democratic Party, he writes, is "the silent partner -- the indispensable ally -- of revolutionary communism in the Third World ... it wants the other side to win." The italics, of course, are his.

When they were both toiling in the White House, Buchanan alleges recalling, North "mused," presumably in horror, about "leading young Marines into battle at Gila Bend (Arizona)" if the struggle were lost in Nicaragua. "At worst, all Ollie was trying to do was keep ammo coming to his besieged buddies ..."

It's a pity these guys won't be doing commentary during the hearings.

Letter-to-the-Editor Time

Some magazines dare to name the best and worst ice cream in town, or the best and worst deejay. The Washington Monthly must need a new pair of cement shoes: In its July-August issue, it names the best and worst labor unions. National Journal, for its part, must have advertisers to spare: In its July 4 issue, it names the best and worst trade associations in Washington.

"Drawing on interviews with academics, unionists, and labor reporters," Stephen Waldman of The Washington Monthly finds much to praise in the pluck of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America for its rescue of a beleaguered cutting-tool plant, for example, and in the socially conscious persistence of the Association of Flight Attendants.

When Waldman asked his sources to name the worst unions, the most common response was "well, besides the Teamsters, there's ..." After disposing of the Teamsters himself, Waldman goes on to identify the most offensive runners-up with assessments like: "It's not just mafia control that earns the {International Longshoremen's Association} a spot on the worst list; the union has also made a major contribution to the disintegration of New York's ports."

What makes an effective trade association? The answers Burt Solomon found for his National Journal story are not exactly surprising -- creativity, persistence, clear priorities, the clout of foot soldiers in the heartland, the freedom to act without cumbersome membership approval.

Once-formidable groups such as the American Bankers Association and the American Medical Association have become overweight and less effective; in their place there has been "a rise in influence of trade associations that don't want much but want it badly."

Among the best, in Solomon's analysis, are the Fertilizer Institute, the National Cable Television Association and the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. The Tobacco Institute, another "best," is considered "tenacious, smart, well-financed and skilled at hardball." The National Rifle Association "evokes such intensity from its three million members that it frightens Congress into supporting positions that even police chiefs find bizarre."

The losers on the list -- among others, the Chamber of Commerce of the United States and the National Association of Broadcasters -- are so anointed because "they're lead-footed; they're predictable, they're incompetent, they're bland; they're handcuffed; they don't understand how Washington works."

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Pee-wee Herman agreed to talk to Margy Rochlin of Interview magazine as his real-life self, Paul Reubens, out of costume and out of character -- only so long as he would appear in the text as Pee-wee. "A large part of the reason I want to be mysterious is so that I can move on and do something serious at some point in my career," he says in the July issue. But not yet. He reveals that Ralston-Purina is developing a breakfast cereal called "Pee-wee Chow," and "I want the television commercial for it to show a mother pouring it into a bowl and putting it on the floor, and the kids crawling over and eating it like dog food."

They may be anachronisms, but Maryland's six remaining ferries are not hurting for passengers. In fact, local residents, commuters and business people who find the ferries essential are competing with rising numbers of tourists who find the water passage a relaxing excursion. These ferries are described by Pat Vojtech -- and stunningly captured by photographer Michael Ventura -- in the summer issue of Maryland, a handsome state-supported quarterly magazine.