Remember the Iran-contra hearings on television last summer? Heck of a show. Ollie won, the committees lost -- or maybe it was the other way round. Anyway, they're over.
Now comes Bill Moyers in the final 90-minute installment of his 11-hour series on the Constitution ("Moyers: The Secret Government ... The Constitution in Crisis," Channel 26, tonight at 9) to tell us it wasn't just a television matchup with winners and losers. And it isn't over.
The Iran-contra affair, Moyers shows in this apt conclusion to his epic, is another, predictable step on a long march toward the national security state that began in 1947. That was the year Congress set up the basic institutions of what became the secret government -- the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council.
The message -- once Moyers gets beyond the show's curious MTV-like opening -- is that we cannot put this behind us, as President Reagan and his administration would like, because the flaws in the system revealed by Iran-contra are still with us.
To buttress his case, Moyers calls on former military and intelligence officers to tell in their own words how the White House has used this hidden government to go far beyond what was intended in 1947.
Indirectly, at least, Moyers' last effort in the series is also a redemption of sorts for television. When broadcast gavel-to-gavel last summer, the hearings often seemed like a battle of personalities. One day we had the duel between the "hippie" interrogator and the "handsome Marine"; the next, the skirmish between the battling defense counsel and the untelegenic committee chairman.
Moyers extinguishes the emotional fire and instead conducts a cool inquiry into the "secret government" which "has been growing like a cancer for 40 years."
As a television event, the Iran-contra hearings were often hard on the investigative committees. In the daylong sessions, the committees were as vulnerable to crowd reaction as an overmatched NFL team. Moyers has the enormous advantage of being able to filter out the grandstanding by witnesses, their lawyers and committee members, and to go to the heart of the hearings. In the short, edited bites, the president's men do not come off so well.
"What was the real reason to withhold information from Congress?" House counsel John W. Nields Jr. asks former national security adviser John M. Poindexter.
"I simply didn't want any outside interference," says the witness.
Far from being "loose cannons," Moyers shows, the late CIA director William J. Casey and former White House aide Oliver L. North were part of a long line of officials, going back to the early days of the Cold War, who felt supremely justified in setting aside democratic values for the "higher" goal of fighting communism.
They used secrecy to cloak their activities and limit accountability.
"Secrecy permits the White House to control what others know -- and that's power," says Moyers.
The troubling suggestion underlying "The Secret Government" is that the United States, in fighting the Cold War or extending the "Reagan Doctrine," has given up more than the enemy. In Iran, Guatemala, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Chile, Laos and now in Central America, secret wars, never declared by Congress, have led the U.S. government to hide the truth from the public, the Congress and sometimes even Cabinet members.
"Can we have the permanent warfare state and democracy, too?" Moyers asks rhetorically.
It is a question that, unfortunately, Moyers slides away from. He tells us that President Reagan has approved 50 major covert operations, "more than any president since Kennedy." But, ever the balanced journalist, Moyers stops short of condemning covert action as a tool of foreign policy.
The best check on the secret government, he appears to conclude, is an aroused citizenry that will see the folly of "ends justify the means" arguments of the national security state.
Moyers finds some grounds for optimism. He shows us a cross section of people -- a Naval Academy graduate, a Midwestern dairy farmer, a Republican state senator from Wisconsin -- who, through the hearings, had their eyes opened to the dangers of secret government.
"Fighting communism can be a whitewash to cover up a multitude of sins," says the Wisconsin Republican after a trip to Nicaragua.
"When Oliver North started to say the things he said I literally wanted to throw things at the TV set," said the Annapolis graduate.
It doesn't take a constitutional scholar to understand those emotions.