FELIX RODRIGUEZ, or Max Gomez, as he is sometimes called, did not greatly increase the information of the two Iran-contra investigating committees, but he was their first bipartisan favorite.
"I have enjoyed your testimony very much," said Rep. Michael DeWine (R-Ohio), slavish defender of absolutely everything that has happened in the reign of Ronald Reagan.
The Democrats, for different reasons, were just as pleased.
The Republicans were naturally smitten by Rodriguez' brilliant career as a hot warrior in the cold war. He began his anti-communist crusade as a youth of l7, when he fought at the Bay of Pigs. He served the CIA in Vietnam, and without a moment's thought accepted Oliver North's invitation to serve as local maestro of the contra airlift.
He didn't care if it was private or public. The legalities concerned him not at all. "I helped him, and I would continue to help anybody under the circumstances because I believe very strongly in the situation that they were having. And perhaps a lot of you doesn't have the experience that I did, but if you had, you would probably feel the same way."
Those who felt the same way on the committee had a field day. Didn't he think the Sandinistas were smuggling drugs? He had heard it. Were the Soviets training Nicaraguans as negotiators or as fighters, asked Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) with heavy sarcasm. Rodriguez provided a photo-op, unfurling a a red banner captured from a Salvadoran rebel group. It bore the tell-tale hammer and sickle and provided the armchair combatants before him with perhaps their finest moment in the hearing room.
The Democrats found other treasures in the sombre, swarthy, guarded witness. He provided living color for documents that showed the intrigue and infighting among the bucanneers providing the forbidden arms. They competed for business, badmouthing each others' wares and charges. He expressed a virulent distrust of Richard Secord, the patriot-for-a-price, who charged the freedom fighters $9 for $3-dollar hand grenades.
Rodriguez, displaying a suspicion of Secord that matched the committee's, put armed guards on contra planes to keep Secord and his merry men from stealing them. Secord said they were his, although three wealthy witnesses swore last week that they had bought them for the contras.
Rodriguez was also a source of savory comments that bid to be the most quotable in thousands of pages of testimony. He heard Oliver North say, while watching Congress on television, "These people want me, but they cannot touch me because the old man loves my ass." The "old man" being Ronald Reagan.
He also warned North that if the public found out about the contra supply and who was running it, there would be "a scandal worse than Watergate."
Both sides regarded him as the nearest thing to a man of conscience that the slow-moving scenario has yet offered. He was the only one in the ring that seemed to be concerned about the quality of the aircraft that flew over the mountain jungles in the dark and of the reliability of the weapons they droppped, sometimes 10 miles short of the mark.
He also was worried about the caliber of the operatives rounded up for this enterprise. They included several alumni of the old Edwin Wilson cabal. Rodriguez would do anything anywhere to stop the communists who had overrun his native Cuba, but he draws the line at Wilson, the ex-CIA agent who sold arms to Gadhafi and trained terrorists.
He stopped short, though, of total candor. His code plainly prevented him from embarrassing Donald Gregg, his old comrade-in-arms, and Gregg's boss, Vice President Bush. Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine), a former judge with a gift for clean questions, took him through a memo that Gregg handwrote after an urgent visit from Rodriguez in August 1986 to warn of bad apples and bad bullets.
Everything else in the notes was accurate, he said, except its most ominous sentence: "A swap of weapons for dollars was arranged to get aid for contras."
Rodriguez became stiff and vague. He couldn't recall it, and "I don't know exactly when he wrote it. I think he could answer better than I could have a reason to possibly know, because I have a lot of respect for Mr. Gregg." He said that he learned about the swap from the press -- which, of course, did not report a word until Nov. 5, a point Mitchell charitably forebore to make.
It remained for Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate committee, to bring out, with his usual delicacy, that Rodriguez also had a lot of respect for right-wing dictators, specifically Cuba's Fulgencio Batista, a friend of his family. Rodriguez got vague again. He was "very young at the time." Finally, he came out with the anti-communists' creed: Anyone is better than a communist. Bad as Batista might have been in other people's opinion, "Castro is worse."
That's what the argument on Nicaragua is all about.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist