CARL L. "SPITZ" CHANNELL and Benjamin Ernest Linder converged on the front pages this week, their pictures shown side by side across the country, as the two faces of the contra war.
"Spitz" Channell, 41, is a high-powered Washington fund-raiser who was in and out of the White House. Linder, 27, was a civil engineer, who lived in a dirt-poor village in Nicaragua, trying to ease the plight of peasants who were victims of Channell's horde.
Channell raised uncounted millions in the office of his foundation, the National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty. In his ledgers was a special account called "toys." This was a euphemism for weapons that, despite the ban of the Boland Amendment, were sent to Nicaraguato where Lt. Col. Oliver North said they were needed.
Some of Channell's "toys" were used to kill Linder. He died in a contra grenade attack on the hydroelectric plant where he was working. Two peasants died with him. Like the thousands of Americans who go to Nicaragua to counter the murderous administration policy, he knew it was dangerous to be there. He toldfriends he had been "targeted" by the contras.
On Wednesday, as the country was digesting the news of his death, Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel investigating the Iran-contra scandal, took Channell to court and charged him with fraud and conspiracy. Walsh, it might be noted, had been under fire from members of the Senate Select Commitee for pursuing what his most vociferous critic, Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), called "some grand, wild conspiracy case."
The fact that Channell pleaded guilty and named two co-conspirators, North and fund-raiser Richard Miller, head of another tax-free foundation, indicates that Walsh knew what he was doing.
Jane McLaughlin, a young woman who once worked for Channell and later turned him in to the independent counsel, made an appearance on "Nightline" and explained how private-sector war-making works. "Patriotic Americans" willing to fork over $200,000 to $250,000 for "toys" got in to see Ronald Reagan. Those stuck at the $20,000-mark got a "military briefing" from North and a "lavish" dinner at the Hay-Adams Hotel.
But we have to keep in mind is that the National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty was tax-exempt, given the same consideration as the charitable and educational organizations for which the tax break was intended. We were paying to have Channell break the law, sell appointments with the president and keep us in the dark about what was going on.
The mother of a friend of Benjamin Linder, who, we are told, often dressed as clown to entertain the children of the villagers he was helping, put the case most piercingly:
"Our tax dollars are going to buy weapons to kill good-hearted kids like Ben," she said.
Americans knew from the press and television that peasants' cooperatives, shacks, and clinics were being blown up to "bring democracy" to Nicaragua. They confined their protest to telling pollsters that they opposed military aid to the contras. Congress knew that Oliver North was up to something, but when he refused to come up and testify, they meekly backed of -- and voted for contra aid.
Everyone knows that the contra war is the moral equivalent of the garbage barge that started out in New York and floats along the coast, spreading noxious fumes and rage. Neither the country or the world wants any part of our nasty little war. It is seen worldwide as an example of addled arrogance, an obscene flowering of the "better dead than red" philosophy of this administration.
The contras, outnumbered 4 to 1, cannot take the field, much less win. Their leaders are too corrupt even for some advocates of pressuring the Sandinistas. Arturo Cruz, their one respected figure, quit in disgust.
Maybe the great service the hearings will provide is new evidence of what we already knew: that bad policy corrupts the policy-makers and that presidents who persist in unpopular wars come to grief.
The Watergate hearings told us this in copious, odious detail. Nixon would not end the Vietnam War, became obsessed with secrecy and dissent. Paranoia produced enemies lists, office break-ins, and fire-bomb plots. Carl Channell's "toys" are in that tradition.
Maybe, as the story unfolds on the home-screen, the country will set to thinkingthat it should not be fleeced by people getting tax-breaks, and that we really cannot spare more Americans like Ben Linder, who built dams and made children laugh. Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.