Plenty of neat ideas are not quite neat enough, usually because not enough thought has been given to bolts from the blue.

The plan to sell arms to Iran and funnel profits to the contras (which both Lt. Col. North and Rear Adm. Poindexter characterized as "neat" when they testified) was certainly an ingenious idea, whether or not it was wise or legal, and it probably would have worked except that its perpetrators did not allow for Ronald Reagan.

Poindexter knew, of course, the possibility that the arms-for-hostages scheme would become public knowledge, and prudently tore up the paper in which the president authorized it. But little did he know the president would shout up and down (at just the wrong time) that never in a million years would he allow such a thing. Poindexter had a right to believe that if the arms scheme became known the president would avoid bombast and make a statesmanlike argument sufficiently fuzzed that the bald ransom aspect of the deal would be obscured. Instead, the president headed right into the ransom aspect and denied it vehemently. Later, to add to the mischief, he said his heart told him ransom was not the thing, but evidence convinced him the originally noble enterprise had degenerated into a ransom arrangement. He not only contradicted himself flatly but did so ludicrously, and Poindexter had no way of knowing that in advance.

You might wonder why Poindexter thought there was any point "protecting" the president by not spelling out to him details of the money to the contras. This was, he said, to give the president the possibility to deny knowledge of it. But if the president was able to flatly deny knowledge of the arms-for-hostages deal, which he knew about, why did he need any excuse to deny the contra money, even if he knew about that also?

The thing is, Poindexter undoubtedly assumed the president would not stick his foot in his mouth about the Iranian arms, proclaiming horror at the very thought of aiding terrorists. If the president had got out of that, then Poindexter's testimony about the contra money might have smoothed the entire thing over.

Poindexter also probably miscalculated in supposing the neat idea would result in freeing the American hostages, and so great would be the success and credit that nobody would get too exercised about the means.

And he almost certainly did not foresee a possible criminal case against himself, making it necessary all of a sudden to disclose the president's knowledge of the arms sale. It wasn't Poindexter's fault that the president had gone way out on a limb to deny what Poindexter was obliged to say in self-defense.

At the hearing, Poindexter had the delicate task of insisting the president knew nothing about contra money, while at the same time insisting the diversion was fully in line with the president's wishes. His task was to say the president was innocent (if it should be determined the contra diversion were illegal) while avoiding the charge that Poindexter acted illegally in devising the scheme without presidential authority. Since it is tricky to have it both ways, Poindexter naturally had a tightrope to walk, and probably did it as carefully as any mortal could.

Whether Poindexter told the pure truth when he said the president knew nothing of the diversion of money is debatable. There are ways of telling a superior something without actually telling him, just as there are ways of misleading a superior without actually misleading him.

In any case, nobody can seriously believe that anything was done contrary to the wishes and active encouragement, if not direct order, of the president. This has surely been apparent to all, even before the hearings began. Poindexter conferred with the president constantly and North did occasionally. Few men, and probably extremely few presidential advisers, are so self-effacing as to hide their light totally under a bushel, when they know they are doing a superior's will and think they are doing it brilliantly. So it is bound to be an exercise in general babblement to split hairs over the meanings of "knew" and "told."

An argument can be made for the overtures to Iran and even for paying ransom for the hostages. An argument can be made that funneling money to the contras was legal, or if not technically legal at least understandable, given the record of the Congress in on-again, off-again contra support.

But the presidential rhetoric about Founding Fathers in Nicaragua and a steady propaganda that the Sandinistas would soon be in Texas and at our throats, and high oratory that this nation will never deal with terrorists, etc., closed several options. It is now extremely hard to advance the arguments that could have been made if the president had not sounded off so fully, so often and so recklessly. Most people probably believed, when all this began to unravel, that North was a loose cannon and maybe Poindexter, too. It strikes me as increasingly clear there is a loose cannon, all right, and it sits in the Oval Office and sleeps (if it wishes) in Abraham Lincoln's bed