A picture of the Iran-Contra hearings was incorrectly captioned in Monday's Style section. It was taken in the Senate Caucus Room. (Published 7/22/87)
Being at the Iran-contra hearings is like being inside a ship, a Turkish bazaar, a combat zone, the backstage of a hit musical, a rush hour traffic jam, a baseball stadium, a cathedral on Christmas Eve, something huge and sloppy, solemn and ordinary, utterly paradoxical, a ruckus.
In short, it doesn't look like it looks on television, that medium of close-ups and arguments, where we see mostly a clash of wills with a choreographed quality to it, like a fistfight in an Elvis Presley movie. And it doesn't seem like it seems in the newspapers and magazines either. Print reduces the hearings to words -- evidence, detail, logic -- one reason being that the reporters sit in back of the witnesses. They can't see their faces -- Lt. Col. Oliver North being cute as all get-out, or Rear Adm. John Poindexter pursing his mouth as if to wring out the last scintilla of precision.
In the media, what gets lost is the fact that hearings are a medium in themselves, sort of a cross between classical architecture and a county fair.
"It's tattered around the edges -- that's the way it ought to be," says Lionel Barber, a correspondent for the Financial Times of London. "You don't want it to be a smooth operation -- it looks smooth on television, but it's not about marble columns, it's about these scruffy individuals."
There are marble columns in the Senate Caucus Room, all right, black-veined Corinthian ones holding up a classical ceiling of acanthus leaves and gilded rosettes. But below them is a floor littered with a scruffy regiment of folding chairs that look as though they've been commandeered from the first half-dozen storefront churches to be found on Capitol Hill.
The room -- also home to the Watergate and Army-McCarthy hearings -- was designed at the turn of the century in a French classical style that echoes the Enlightenment rationality of the Founding Fathers. It is intended to be a shrine to self-evident truth -- witness the triangular pediment over the main doorway, in the style of Greek temples. When hearings were held here in 1912 on the sinking of the Titanic or in 1923-24 on the Teapot Dome scandal, there must have been a certain magnificence to the twilight vault of air overhanging the proceedings like the brooding of Reason itself.
At the same time, amid this magnificence, the Titanic hearings turned into a circus, with people fighting their way into the room and onto balconies outside, including hundreds of women playing hooky from a convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Finally, the hearings had to be moved. And classical architecture did nothing to stop one of the more celebrated moments in the history of the room: On May 1, 1933, during hearings held on Wall Street banking practices, a publicity agent dumped a midget on the lap of witness J.P. Morgan.
The high and the low, the exalted and the profane, Reason meets The People: As Ollie North appeals to truth and honor, lawyers slouch in meditative splendor and photographers crabwalk through a heap of wires, tripods, monopods, film cans, lens cases. History is made while Rep. Les Aspin eats a cookie. Rep. Jack Brooks blows smoke at the coal of his cigar, perhaps trying to coax a bit of a glow out of it, even in the glare of television lights. The lights: For a split-second when you first see the hearing room, it's not so much that people are whispering, waving, smoking, eating, wandering, yawning and scratching that surprises you, but that they're moving at all, given the way the towers of lights make the air seem solid with brightness, like a million-watt fly-in-amber.
"All the people running around, the cameras going off," says Joe Martinez, a mechanic from Los Angeles, after his allotted half hour of witnessing democracy in action. "It's kind of disturbing."
"The atmosphere is a lot lighter than I expected, more jovial," says Betty Brownstein, an executive secretary who is also from Los Angeles.
And what happens to all the noble intentions of architects when everything is draped in wires and swaddled in gaffer's tape -- tape on the marble floors to show people where to stand for television interviews, tape on the red carpet to show each photographer where to crouch, tape wrapping bundles of wire around doorways, tape and wires that even rise through skylights, linking the hearings to the world by television?
"We're building a new hearing room in the Hart Building," says George White, architect of the Capitol. "It will have built-in facilities for the media -- the cameras will be behind panels, the cables will be back behind the walls. If you take a dark, gloomy, formal, traditional, classical space, and then you have all this equipment, the cables strung all over the place, lights hanging down, cameras all over the place, you could be in a tent with all this stuff and accomplish the same purpose."
After these months of hearings, how many Americans are aware that they've been held in two different rooms? They alternate between the Senate Caucus Room and the Thomas E. (Doc) Morgan Room in the Rayburn Building, smaller and newer, but invoking the same ideals with its high ceiling, paneled wainscoting, red rugs bearing a pattern of yellow wreaths, and huge eagle on the colonial-yellow walls.
The layout of the rooms is so traditional we never think about it: They're designed so that the press and the public are unable to see the witness' face, as we can in a courtroom. Instead, spectators face the congressmen.
"When you're in the room, it's unbelievable, you can really put yourself in the place of Poindexter," says Karleen Stewart, a teacher from Palm Bay, Fla. "The way they're looking at you, to know that they're all sitting there judging you!"
That's the whole point -- the rooms force the public to contemplate its elected representatives as they, in turn, do the job of examining the witness. It's an architectural metaphor for republican government.
But it didn't anticipate television. The public is no longer the tourists or print journalists at the back of the room, but the millions watching the proceedings across the country. As White says, "The room was created for the people in it, not for people watching on television."
Meanwhile, the live spectators see a whole different hearing, one closer perhaps to that intended by the Founding Fathers and the Capitol's architects.
"My wife was talking about how expressive North was, the hurt-puppy look -- we didn't see any of that," says Bob Dart, who has been writing about the hearings for the Atlanta Constitution.
"You go back and try to compensate for television," says Melissa Healy of U.S. News and World Report. "Often I have distinctly changed my mind about how it appears, after seeing it on TV."
How could any medium convey the full impact of Rep. Henry Hyde -- the sheer size of his head with that injection-molded sweep of white hair? Or the king-lizard calm of Sen. Sam Nunn? Or the odd battlefield combination of lassitude and panic out in the hallways, or the noise of the whole thing, an underlying roar of whispers, footsteps, riffled paper, air conditioning and loudspeakers, the sort of generic white noise you don't hear at all after a while, as when you're on a ship? The noble and the mundane, architecture meets America, all of it a little tattered around the edges, a national ritual