Conservatism has entered the age of martyrs.

Last night at the University Club, about 50 people paid $50 apiece to help defray the legal expenses of one of them -- Bretton Sciaroni. "Clearly," said the latest conservative cause ce'le`bre, "I feel victimized ... Every time I see Robert Bork on television, I have to have sympathy."

Why is Sciaroni a cause?

On Sept. 12, 1985, Sciaroni, as general counsel to the Intelligence Oversight Board, provided the administration with the legal opinion that the National Security Council staff was not bound by the Boland Amendment, which prohibited U.S. government officials involved in intelligence operations from providing aid to the contras. It was on this basis that the administration justified the diversion to the contras of funds raised by the sale of arms to Iran.

On June 8, 1987, Sciaroni was called to testify before the Iran-contra committee investigating the scandal. He hired three lawyers for two weeks, he says, to help him prepare. Now, after a round of negotiations, the White House has refused to foot his bill.

The expenses were "pretty substantial ... five figures," he said. "I wasn't a transactional person involved in this ... Congress writes a bad law. I write an opinion, which is correct. I get roasted on national television ... I'm sort of getting it from both ends. That's a fair statement."

His friends echoed his grievance.

"Like the Moscow trials," said Charles Fairbanks, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, now a professor at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. "One of the most senseless pieces of cruelty."

"Star chamber proceedings," said Charles Heatherley, the former head of the White House Fellows program and now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

"He went through too much," said Terry Scanlon, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) offered the crowd a bit of Hollywood lore to illuminate Sciaroni's plight.

"I think," he said, "of the funeral of the former president of Columbia Pictures, a guy named Harry Cohn -- really despised. Ten thousand people showed up. And Red Skelton said: 'Give the people what they want and they'll come out.'"

Hyde then turned to Sciaroni and bemoaned the attacks on those "who do a credible, believable, principled job for America." But: "It reached its zenith not in your ordeal, Brett, but in Judge Bork's."

"We don't have an aristocracy in America, thank God," he concluded, "but in the aristocracy of character, you are at least a full duke."

Sciaroni, however, put himself in perspective as "a minor foot soldier in the whole thing ... a refugee from Iran-contra ... Fawn Hall's warm-up act."

For him, the "whole thing" began in early 1981, when he established his credentials as a movement conservative in Washington by working on the national security section of Mandate for Change, a mammoth wish list of policies presented to the incoming Reagan administration by the Heritage Foundation.

After failing the bar exam four times in his native California and the District of Columbia, Sciaroni passed it in Pennsylvania, where he had never lived. He was then appointed to the IOB.

While he was there, in April 1985, he participated in the concerted conservative effort to overturn the traditional interpretation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the foundation of modern arms control. In a study anonymously written for Heritage, Sciaroni argued that the ABM Treaty did not bar the testing and deployment of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.

That same month, Sciaroni gave Lt. Col. Oliver North his draft opinion on the irrelevance of the Boland Amendment to the NSC. "Give me your comments (at your leisure of course). Thanks," he wrote in an attached note.

Sciaroni decided, after a five-minute talk with North, a 30-minute talk with the NSC's staff attorney and a brief survey of documents, that the NSC was not violating the Boland Amendment in any case.

"Well," Sciaroni testified later before the Iran-contra committee, "my investigation was probably as thorough as the one that had been conducted by the Hill."

"Very enlightening," responded Rep. Edward Boland (D-Mass.), the author of the famous amendment. "Think about that and consider what it tells us about the value the White House placed on adhering to the laws."

Now Sciaroni is out of work. "I haven't been real aggressive so far," he said. And the White House won't pay his legal fees. "Little did I realize," he said. "It is so blatantly unfair."