This is a city of Poindexters. There are Poindexters by the thousands here -- bureaucrats and technocrats with their noses to the grindstone, public servants in sensible shoes, hard workers and good sports who paint by the numbers on the canvas of life. It could be a common noun: poindexter. Keepers of the seed corn. Tenders of the flame. Why don't we like them more?
Rear Adm. John Marlan Poindexter has been waiting to appear at the Iran-contra hearings and explain what part he played in lies to Congress, secret slush funds and the furnishing of arms to both the Nicaraguan contras and the Iranians. He is the next star witness to follow Lt. Col. Oliver North, a tough act indeed. North has made himself a national hero. It's unlikely that Poindexter will do the same.
Of course, we are not necessarily talking about the real John Poindexter -- who knows what wild griefs and joys might lie behind that big, blank face? The real John Poindexter is of little concern. We are talking about the Poindexter who has been created in our minds, sort of a community hologram. This image of a man is bald, solemn, stolid and precise -- when the light catches his trifocals just so, he looks like he's staring at you through a Venetian blind, thinking and thinking while his dark little mouth measures out clouds of pipe smoke.
Consider the quotes the press has been gathering for months:
"Not an excitable type." -- Sen. John Chafee.
"He was never a little boy. He was born an old man ... He was not mischievous, as some boys are. He took life seriously. He was always interested in doing something constructive." -- Ellen Poindexter, his mother.
So there are apt to be no Poindexter songs, no talk of movie contracts, no beating hearts, no Poindextermania. That's probably just the way he likes it. Unlike some of his predecessors at the National Security Council -- Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert McFarlane -- Poindexter has dodged the press even during successes such as the interception of the Egyptian flight carrying the Achille Lauro terrorists.
"A consummate staff officer." -- Thor Hanson, a retired vice admiral.
"He just did his work as a duty, as an assignment." -- Felix Boehm, professor at California Institute of Technology, where Poindexter got a doctorate in nuclear physics.
If bureaucracy is to humanity as Muzak is to music, you can imagine Poindexter as a 9-to-5 conductor, sight-reading perfectly all the way.
"John's forte was paper flow," says Geoffrey Kemp, a former adviser at the National Security Council, which Poindexter headed until the Iran-contra scandal broke last November and he resigned. "He was a bureaucrat's bureaucrat."
"A truly steady hand at the helm." -- Ronald Reagan.
"His success, as always, is a foregone conclusion." -- Naval Academy yearbook.
"A complete nerd." -- a fellow midshipman.
We know so little about him: He's from Odon, Indiana, the son of a bank president; he is said to like Bach; he likes making things from kits, including a computer to monitor his gas mileage and driving time; he lives in Rockville; his wife is an Episcopalian priest; he has five sons; he spent 30 years in the Navy and had no combat experience to put in his official biography; he was sometimes known to eat every meal of the day in his office at the National Security Council -- breakfast and lunch at a small table, dinner at his desk. An aide, asked why Poindexter moved to the desk for dinner, answered: "Variety is the spice of life."
Were it not for the trouble Poindexter is in now, he'd be precisely what we want in our government officials. There are few federal jobs that the Ollie Norths are suited for, but there are few that the Poindexters aren't. We don't want an Ollie North compiling trade statistics or coordinating interagency data flow. Then again, why is it that almost nothing will make our hearts reach out to the Poindexters who make our lives safe, orderly and prosperous?
It's hard to hate our Poindexters -- though it's imaginable that the admiral is the sort of man that a character in Dostoevski would hate precisely for the reason that he's impossible to hate. On the other hand, it's easy to dislike Poindexters -- the way we can dislike cops, undertakers, hall monitors or the ruling class, knowing that we have to have them, but we don't have to like them. As long as everything is working well, the Poindexters give us the bad news that the world is a rational place after all, that we have no right to blame our failures on bad luck, that life is a very simple business, that hard work, a smile, a shoe shine and a row of nice sharp pencils, along with no imagination whatsoever, will get you everywhere. But ever since November, things haven't been working so well for the admiral.
Is it just possible that he'll become a whole new man on national television, calling himself "this kid" the way Ollie did, spilling his guts and pouring out his soul? It's possible, and people might love him for it. But until the opening gavel comes down, it has to look unlikely.
We know so little about him, we have no sense of a private Poindexter, of the little egotistical fillips that define the rest of us. Did he ever try shaving left-handed, just for the hell of it? Did he ever put on a pair of Levis and look over his shoulder in the mirror to see if they were tight enough? When he whistles does he touch his tongue to the roof of his mouth to trill the occasional grace note? Can he blow smoke rings? Does he ever remember something horribly embarrassing and visibly wince? Does anybody call him Johnny or Jack? Did he ever have a secret desire to be called Duke or Tank or Sumo?
It's hard to imagine.
Does he rotate his tires and do his Christmas shopping early? Has he ever owned one of those little plastic squeeze purses for his pocket change? When he moves from one duty station to the next, does he leave his old house a lot cleaner than broom clean?
It's somewhat easier to imagine.
Most of us in Washington or anywhere else in America are a lot more like John Poindexter than Ollie North. But unlike Poindexter, we fail to take pride in it, we don't make a career of it, we don't have the mental stamina to work so hard at dull routines that we can become famous and powerful for doing it. So we do it badly, and then play Ollie North on the weekends (and root for him on TV, whether we agree with him or not).
Poindexter and Ollie: They're yin and yang, day and night, Herbert Hoover and Teddy Roosevelt, George Fenneman and Groucho Marx. Watching Poindexter on the witness stand last winter was like watching tropical fish. Watching Ollie North is like staring off the back of the boat in "Jaws" and waiting for Bruce the Shark to come out of the water.
Is it just possible that after 50 years of sober, dutiful precision Poindexter decided to take a chance, to be an Ollie just once in his life?
Says someone who has known and worked with him for years: "No."