If Oliver North spent four days last week making monkeys of members of Congress, yesterday they sort of got even. They made monkeys of themselves.
Day 5 of Oliver North's term as a witness at the Iran-contra hearings turned into a series of Fourth of July barn-burners and Veterans Day tub-thumpers. "Speeches beget speeches, particularly under the Capitol Dome," noted Dan Rather early in the day. All too true. Words flowed like Perrier, like Heinekens, like white wine. North barely had to nod.
A nadir, of sorts, was reached by Sen. Paul Trible (R-Va.), who began quoting what he said was a historical anecdote favored by John F. Kennedy with a grandiloquent, "In June of 1780, there was a total eclipse of the sun ..." And so on. Much of the day seemed a congressional self-caricature of fatuous wind-bagging.
Al Capp and Will Rogers couldn't have concocted a broader burlesque.
No wonder a plan is now in motion at ABC, CBS and NBC to cease simultaneous gavel-to-gavel coverage by all three and implement a plan engineered by NBC News President Lawrence K. Grossman: The three networks will take turns airing full coverage on alternate days, perhaps beginning as early as tomorrow with the first full day of scheduled testimony by Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter.
The other two networks could jump into and out of the hearings as they wanted or just return to regular daytime network programming.
Grossman said yesterday that the networks followed a similar schedule during the Watergate hearings. "It's a sensible idea," Grossman said. Is it motivated by economics? "Oh sure," he said. The networks are each losing an estimated $600,000 to $1 million per day in advertising revenues because of the hearings.
Networks are also facing current or pending strikes that make coverage more difficult -- NABET's continuing strike by technical personnel against NBC and, unless eleventh-hour action averts it, a strike starting today against NBC and two Hollywood studios by the Directors Guild of America. CBS has already said it will lock out striking Guild directors as a gesture of solidarity with NBC.
Lawyers and executives at all three networks have approved the Grossman plan and it will probably be announced today -- over the objections of some network correspondents and anchors who want to be in there swinging for the whole ball game.
In truth, the hearings have tended to grind down to a lope, and listening to all that congressional swooning and crooning yesterday couldn't have been anybody's idea of a treat. North just sat there looking patiently noble, or nobly patient, only occasionally issuing such pronouncements, inadvertently reassuring, as "Certainly, I will never be president."
North's public image of soldierly martyrdom apparently survives his quiet outbursts of bald arrogance, as when during questioning by Rep. Thomas Foley (D-Wash.), one of the few serious and nonspeechifying interrogators, North decreed what was and was not "in the purview of the legislative branch" where foreign policy is concerned. Nobody dares to say to him, "Who the heck do you think you are?" That's because they've read the polls and the press accounts and realize they have an 800-pound media gorilla on their hands.
Last week, the committees looked the bully, but once they got a gander at the stack of telegrams brandished by North, they went into a phase of intensive Ollie-coddling. Now North is beginning to look like he's the one doing the beating up. He's imbued with so much righteous fervor, he seems a trifle amok.
North's lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, got particularly abrasive even for him yesterday, especially with Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.). Brooks ventured to ask about North's insistence that he was innocent of any wrongdoing even while demanding partial immunity for his testimony at the hearings. Sullivan snarled back at Brooks, "Do you know anything about the Fifth Amendment and its purpose?"
"Mr. Chairman," said Brooks to Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), "I've had quite enough listening to Mr. Sullivan." Well who hadn't?
The last questioner of the day was the only one who really rose to eloquence. That was Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.). He had more remarks than questions, too, but they were pithy. In response to all North's charges about Congress vacillating and rethinking on such matters as aid to the contras, Rudman said Congress did listen to the voice of the people, and that sometimes that voice says enough, already.
"The American people have the constitutional right to be wrong," Rudman concluded movingly. More moving still was a candid shot of him later, after adjournment. He was lifting a glass of water to his lips, and quivering slightly as he did so. His passion, it seemed, had been as deeply felt as it appeared.
By contrast, in the morning, there were the prancings and cavortings of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the Howdy Doody of demagogues. Hatch asked North a series of short, clipped questions to which the answers, usually complete agreement with the sentiments contained in the questions, seemed tacitly preprogrammed.
Hatch was at his mugwumpy best when he tried conceding "mistakes" and "errors" were made without actually criticizing the vaunted Saint Ollie seated before him. Using the Ayatollah Khomeini's money to fund arms for contras was "a nice idea" and "a neat idea," said Hatch -- suddenly adding, to the sound of derisive laughter in the caucus room, a Nixonistic "except, I don't think it was right."
There was another precious bit of waffling by Hatch. After inexplicably praising North for helping to "take this affair ... away from the media," Hatch drifted off into a reverie of gobbledygook.
"I don't want to give the impression that I believe that there weren't mistakes made here. There were," said Hatch. "And I think that trading arms for hostages is wrong, and to the extent that the Iran initiative became strictly an arms-for-hostages deal -- which it was not, but nevertheless has been portrayed by certain people in the media to be -- I think that was wrong."
And this guy was seriously considered by Ronald Reagan for nomination to the Supreme Court?
NBC News made a wise decision during the Hatch questioning. It cut away from it. Tom Brokaw was in a New York studio interviewing former CIA deputy director Bobby Ray Inman.
Later, asked if NBC had temporarily lost the signal from Washington, an NBC spokesman said no, that it was an "editorial" judgment. When NBC got back to the hearings, Hatch was still rambling through his opening statement.
CNN cut away from the hearings a few times in the morning, too, but not on purpose. The all-news network lost its feed from the Hill. CNN was further hampered by the fact that its Washington bureau couldn't reach the Capitol Hill station because phone lines were still down from a weekend storm. For several minutes during Trible's gig, CNN viewers saw commercials, public service announcements, a weather report and a hard-hitting feature on the feeding habits of dinosaurs.
Wouldn't it be funny if their ratings actually went up during that period?
It was about the time Trible was saying, in response to a North response, "I absolutely believe that, Colonel North. Absolutely, Colonel North." Hey, Trible, you forgot to salute.
Interviewed during an early morning break on CBS, Rep. Dante Fascell (D-Fla.) told Phil Jones on the subject of North, "You'd have to be the tooth fairy to believe he'd just got hold of some bad torpedo juice and was just a loose cannon running around."
It turns out this was in the nature of a rehearsal. Half an hour later, Fascell, from his committee member's chair, was lecturing North about "the tooth fairy" and "some bad torpedo juice." Throughout the day, watching the members orate and pontificate, you could sense that many of them were silently praying to themselves: "Let me be a sound bite on the evening news. Oh let me be a sound bite on the evening news."
Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), like Rudman and Foley, appeared seriously involved with the testimony and not so concerned with sound bites.
CBS News scored a coup over the weekend when Inouye, the hard-nosed Senate committee chairman, told Lesley Stahl on "Face the Nation" about the discovery of a memo from North to Poindexter indicating he had briefed Ronald Reagan last September about covert initiatives funded by the Iran-contra arms sales.
The story was so big in morning papers that Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), loyal administration defender, interrupted Inouye's attempt to recess for lunch with complaints about the chairman talking out of school. "For those who watched 'Face the Nation,' I'm sure they would have gotten the message," said Inouye, indicating that press accounts overstated the significance of the memo. "I thought I was playing it rather fair with the administration."
Again during the morning, as the speech-length questions wore on, networks cut away to the White House where Reagan was making one of his festive helicopter exits, this time to Indianapolis for more speech-making. When he returned in the afternoon, the networks carried that, too (with audio from the hearings), but their camera at the scene wasn't able to do what the camera did last week: pan up, as Reagan waved to the balcony, to a shot of Mrs. Reagan waving back.
Maybe the camera position was different this time. Or maybe the camera operator just said to himself, "Aw, the hell with it." The gala return to the White House occurred only a few minutes after Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), in his usual administration defense posture, had concluded his remarks. "My time is up," Hyde had said, "and it's a shame." Oh no it wasn't.
North will be back for, presumably, a few final hours of questioning today, one week after he began his all-out assault on America's heartstrings. One can think of today's appearance as the concluding chapter in a hill-and-valley mini-series. Or as the final installment, for now, of the Ollie Con.