"There ain't no smoking gun." --President Reagan, June 16

Reagan was clever to fasten onto the "smoking gun" standard at this stage in the Iranamok proceedings. Ever since Watergate, this has become the standard by which to judge presidential misbehavior. The media, merrily chasing after a new smoking gun, have spread this misconception. But the smoking gun standard misrepresents the issues at stake in three ways.

First, it suggests that any conclusion about what happened must await definitive evidence. There's apparently a memo addressed to Reagan, describing the diversion of Iranian arms sale profits to the contras, but no proof that he actually read it. Short of closed-circuit camera photos showing him reading the memo -- combined, perhaps, with electroencephalogram tapes indicating that his mind was engaged that day -- some people will cling to the belief that there's "no proof." This kind of thinking tends to be selective. Some people believe Alger Hiss is innocent, too, but I doubt there are any who apply the same degree of skepticism to the evidence against Hiss and Reagan.

Second, the smoking-gun standard puts too much emphasis on the president's personal knowledge and behavior. This is the Howard Baker corollary, named for Baker's famous "what did he know and when did he know it" refrain from the Watergate hearings. It is the basis for Reagan's spectacular "management style" (or, "out-to-lunch") defense: he had nothing to do with making and executing policy on one of the central concerns of his administration.

This may even be true. But it shouldn't excuse him from responsibility for the actions of his subordinates. One amazing development at this stage in the scandal is how little pressure there is on Reagan to make amends, or even seem contrite, over what is already known about the behavior of his administration. Does he still think Ollie North is a hero?

Third, the smoking-gun standard suggests that the key question is illegality. Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams chose his words carefully when testifying to Congress last fall about reports of government help to the contras. "We have not received a dime from a foreign government," he said, meaning he'd solicited money from Brunei but hadn't received it yet.

That may save Abrams from indictment. But should it allow Secretary of State George Shultz to express his full confidence in Abrams and still preserve his own reputation as a man of unusual integrity among the Reaganite zealots and sleazeballs? Anyone in the administration who doesn't believe in lies and cover-ups, in shredding documents moments ahead of the investigators, in selling arms to terrorists needn't wait for indictments and convictions to give themselves a little moral distance by speaking out.

What's clear, however, is that many believers in the contra policy, within and outside the administration, don't really regret these activities. They just regret getting caught. President Reagan, with his "smoking gun" remark, has brought up the Watergate analogy. Is Iranamok worse than Watergate or not as bad? Some say not as bad since the principal players, at least the government officials among them, were motivated by idealism, albeit misplaced, rather than by personal greed and ambition. Some say worse: the subversion of democracy out of ideological motives is scarier than mere personal corruption.

Noble motives are not to be sneered at. The more we learn about Oliver North, the more it seems that any love of freedom was just the spice for something more clinical in his psychic stew. But it's reasonably clear that his higher-ups had higher-minded aims than the Nixon crowd. They truly want democracy in Central America and truly believe that the contra war is the right way to achieve this goal.

The vice at the root of Iranamok, which makes it both better and worse than Watergate, is moral arrogance. It's fine to believe deeply in a cause, but it's healthy to retain a suspicion that you might be mistaken. For those in power in a democracy, it's vital. Moral humility is the logical basis for all the democratic virtues. What is a small deception of Congress or an afternoon at the document shredder compared to the future of freedom in Central America? Respect for the possibility that you might get caught is not a sufficient deterrent. There must also be respect for the possibility that you might be wrong.

Washington is awash in examples of activities in contempt of law and democratic procedure -- not wildly dissimilar to helping the contras -- that look pretty good in hindsight: Roosevelt aiding the British in the early days of World War II, Americans running guns to Israel in 1948. Drawing distinctions between this bit of illegality and that one -- government official versus private action, secret versus open, and so on -- is a swell parlor game. The more important point is that hindsight is omniscient, but people who view their current actions as if in hindsight are dangerous. We have the democratic rule of law precisely because we don't have hindsight.