Suspenseful, eventful and surprising up to the last scene of the last act, Lt. Col. Oliver North's testimony at the Iran-contra hearings finally ended yesterday with North's lawyer peevishly interrupting an eloquent closing statement by committee chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).
It was as if both sides in the spectacle wanted to finish it off with one more celebratory skirmish, perhaps as a kind of reward to that hard core of viewers who stayed with it faithfully through all six rollicking, riveting days.
Inouye was addressing himself to young men and women who may enter the military because they found North to be an inspiring figure. He was explaining that soldiers should not be expected to follow "unlawful orders," a precept reaffirmed internationally at the Nuremburg trials.
Brendan Sullivan, North's fox terrier of a lawyer, who'd been resting comfortably for most of the afternoon, took umbrage, loudly -- his by-now tired trick of overreacting to make it look like North was being ambushed.
"I find this offensive," he growled at Inouye. "I find you're engaging in a personal attack on Colonel North, and you're far removed from the issues of this case. To make reference to the Nuremburg trials I find personally and professionally distasteful, and I can no longer sit here and listen to this."
Inouye: "You will have to sit there if you want to listen." It was a cue for Sullivan to rise and stomp out. He didn't. The implacable chairman, completely unshaken, continued. His "personal attack on Colonel North" had already included hailing and praising North to the skies, calling him "gallant" and exemplary.
"I believe during the past week, we have participated in creating and developing a new American hero," Inouye said. The most significant player in that game, of course, was television. If the hearings had not been televised, North might have had to slink away from them in rueful dismay. Television changes the nature of events and personalizes everything it gets near; they are old lessons, but they were taught vividly again.
Some of those who have been in the caucus room for the hearings say they have a much different impression than those who've watched on TV. Good for them. But it's the impression given by television that counts. Heck, the committee members would have been able to enjoy North's famous slide show ("Contratainment Tonight") if not for the presence of television.
After much morning wrangling and grumbling, the slide show was canceled because, said Inouye, the TV lights were too bright to show slides in the room, and if they couldn't be seen on TV, what was the point of showing them? A private evening screening for members could have been arranged, but Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), among others, said it would be an outrage to do that on "the night of the all-star baseball game on television."
If Ollie North could make a quick deal with a home video firm, his slide show might prove to be the hottest seller since Jane Fonda last wore tights. Rep. Michael DeWine (R-Ohio), who contributed precisely nothing of value to any aspect of the proceedings, testified dubiously yesterday to the demonstrated "intense interest of the American people" in North's bombastic contra revue.
Bruce Morton of CBS News said that the slide show was, "by all accounts, a whale of a briefing," and fellow correspondent Phil Jones said, "The hearings have turned out to be a real bonanza for the contra cause" and airing the slide show "would be the real bang for the buck."
A 10-minute recess to discuss slide-show methodology turned into a 54-minute recess. NBC News correspondent John Dancy said the details were being worked out in private by committee members because "I suspect the chairman is acutely aware of the spectacle they're making of themselves on national television."
And yet when Inouye and colleagues returned, to announce that North's slide show would be made available in printed format for all to peruse, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) interjected the earthshaking query, "Will there be captions on these slides?"
This was followed by the world's weirdest slide show, Ollie North picking the slides out of the tray before him and merely describing them to the committee: "The second slide is a photograph of Andrei Gromyko." One began to long for a stray snapshot from the Norths' most recent trip to Yellowstone Park (you can't tell me they haven't been there) or an intimate portrait of the family pooch.
It wasn't easy for the hearings to degenerate from the low point they reached on Monday, but at times, the committee gave it a shot. DeWine returned to the spotlight for a long, pompous monologue, managing to make trite and transparent the kinds of sentiments that North had been able to make stirring and genuine.
DeWine: "Colonel, when I was a young boy, growing up in Ohio ... "
American television viewer: "Oh, brother!"
Rep. Jim Courter (R-N.J.) then chimed in with DeWine for some blurry, churlish gripes about Inouye's conduct as chairman that made no sense but did prompt a ringing defense from Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.). Rudman told, however irrelevantly, of phone calls received in his office that contained "ethnic slurs" against Inouye, a decorated and severely wounded veteran of World War II.
"He is," said Rudman, "one of the greatest men I have ever known." Indeed, Inouye seems one of those who can walk away from the big "Hello, Ollie" pageant with head held high. Another is Dan Rather of CBS News, who did his best throughout coverage to broaden the context of the event and stress the deepest issues involved, playing it clean and neat, if never precisely cool.
Rather has a tendency to overexplain, overemphasize and sometimes, when delineating a complex matter, turn mere riddle into a hopeless maze. Sometimes he laughs a little too much at Bruce Morton's remarks, sometimes his down-home colloquialisms seem recruited from a backwoods thesaurus. But the contagious passion he brings to these events more than compensates. You know the guy is getting a bang out of just being there.
It is a pleasure to be with him.
"Republicans on the committee think they're on a roll now, think they can get air time for Oliver North's slide show. We'll see," said Rather during the morning wrangling, which he referred to later as the equivalent of "a rain dance and a war cry" by the conservatives. All Rather said after Inouye's moving concluding statement was, "One warrior speaks to another." He noted that whoever characterized congressional colloquy as "a wind festival" wasn't talking through his hat.
Peter Jennings of ABC News, dogged and erudite, and Tom Brokaw of NBC News, dry and deliberate, had their moments as well, Brokaw making like Ted Koppel with plenty of split-screen interviews during recesses and breaks (the NBC caption "Inquiry" on the screen remains a stylistic mystery). Jennings was good grilling his own correspondents -- among them, Brit Hume, about Hume's magazine piece on Joe Biden, which came up more than once during testimony. In the article, Hume quoted Biden as saying that he had on occasion threatened to leak details of covert operations of which he disapproved, thereby putting the kibosh on those operations.
Inouye, not only a class act but a smooth one, wished North well on his "journey into a new life." How public that new life will be is an intriguing question now. North has had a very lengthy day in the sun. It doesn't seem likely he will be able to resist coaxings to return, nor that there will be any shortage of coaxers.
O tempora, o mores, o television.
Those who took the North stint seriously don't like the hearings spoken of as a talk-show in miniseries form or anything so trivializing. But testimony and questioning that included discussions of clandestine meetings in the men's room, the purchase of panty hose and leotards, the preference for pistachio nuts over Persian rugs, a presidentially autographed Bible, and marathon sessions at the handy-dandy shred-o-matic, can't be taken with an unyieldingly straight face.
At the same time, when this phase of the hearings ended yesterday, one may have felt a slight historical tremor, actually reassuring. Given the turbulent way the country began its life, the pride with which it entertains and encourages dissent, and the precarious priorities of liberty and order that are always at odds in a democracy, this week in front of the television set wasn't a bad, or inappropriate, way to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Constitution.
Oliver North left the stage with a salute to the American people, or at least those who had offered him their support. Young soldiers sometimes die; it is hard to believe that this one will just fade away.