To watch the Iran-contra hearings is to see our Constitution at work. It also brings on disturbing doubts about the men who framed the document through the long hot summer in Philadelphia 200 years ago. The question arises almost hourly: "Did the founders know what they were doing?
Did they foresee a bull-headed president who would not take no for an answer from Congress? Listening to the tales from the White House, you say they were mad to give any one person so much power, the direction of foreign policy.
On the other hand, you listen to Congress' record on the contra war -- no, yes, maybe -- and you wonder, what were they thinking of to confer the power of the purse on foreign policy on such a collection?
Trashing Congress is the chief occupation of the House Republicans on the committee and their spiritual leader from the Senate, Orrin Hatch. They cannot belabor enough its vacillations, its leaks, its stubborn refusal to recognize the majesty of the presidency. Listening to Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), you have to wonder how his constituents feel when they hear his descriptions of the no-account body he biennially begs them to send him to. Do they askthemselves if perhaps they should ask him to serve again in an association of dunderheads and poltroons?
Then you hear about what went on in the White House, the secret nocturnal tours for Iranian visitors, the secret fund raising, the secret arms shipments, the money laundry and the conviction, as expressed by Fawn Hall, Oliver North's document-shredder, that "sometimes you have to go above the written law."
Congress eventually, in spite of itself, got wind of it all.
What did the great, slow-moving, cowardly beast do?
Well, nothing, actually.
Would the founders be sorry they had trusted the fate of the nation to such timid souls? Probably not. They could have created a king in Philadelphia -- they had the perfect candidate in George Washington -- but he said no and they said no.
The membership of the select committee is sewn with closet monarchists who long for trumpets and ermine and royal edicts. They think the founders were dead wrong to give people like themselves the right to rein in a giant such as Ronald Reagan.
But the founders, reckless gamblers that they were, said, take a chance. If we elect enough of them, some of them could be wise, or even sensible. Eventually, they will get the drift.
It took Congress quite a while on Iran-contra. They knew that the contras were getting arms and money but they forebore to make a federal case of it.
Why? Polls is why. The founders did not have polls to contend with. Today's public servants live and die by them. The polls showed that at the time that the Boland amendment was in effect Reagan was the most popular president in the history of the Republic. In a showdown with him, they might have lost. Congress fears only one thing more than losing, and that is winning.
Democrats knew the war was wrong and they had the votes to stop it. But they didn't dare let go. They passed the mewling McCurdy amendment for "humanitarian" aid in 1985 and opened the way for the $100 million in arms they finally voted.
Bretton Sciaroni, a hearings witness last week was not awfully impressive. He had flunked the bar four times and lost several government jobs before becoming legal counsel to the Intelligence Oversight Board. He had ruled, secretly, of course, that the Boland Amendment was not being violated by the NSC. Still, he had a point about Congress.
His investigation lasted 35 minutes. He asked North and the NSC legal counsel if they had broken the law. They said no, and he issued his secret interpretation. Congress hadn't done all that much better, he noted.
Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) replied stiffly that it was difficult to probe when the president's men withheld papers and lied to committees.
Now a new hearings-born scam is in the making. Elliott Abrams the assistant secretary of state for Central American affairs, admitted he had lied to Congress about begging for the contras. It was suggested that he no longer is a proper spokesman for the great cause of the mercenaries.
Now the president's men are madly bargaining on Capitol Hill. In exchange for Abrams' head, will Congress vote for the next installment of contra money? They say with straight faces that the only thing wrong with the contra policy is that Abrams lied about it. A Congress born yesterday may buy this.
But the founders obviously wanted us to live dangerously, with the outcome ever in doubt. "A republic," Benjamin Franklin called the form of government he and his confederates were fashioning, "if you can keep it."
Democracy, the founders told us, is hard work. The hearings are showing us again how dicey it is, and how exhilarating. The founders knew what they were doing.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.