Reflections on the testimony of Lt. Col. Oliver North give rise to thoughts grave and not so grave, and these last for the moment occupy the mind. ''What were you using the shredder for?'' early in the proceedings an inquisitor found himself asking. What a joy . . .
It was a long time ago that I read the essay by Robert Benchley in which he externalized his fantasy -- the witness in the murder trial. It went something like this:
''Well, now, Mr. Benchley, what time was it you say you heard the shot?''
Prosecutor (smug expression of satisfaction aimed at the jury): ''And how do you know, Mr. Benchley, that it was 2:37?''
''I looked at my watch.''
The prosecutor (a little more slowly this time): ''And why did you look at your watch?''
''To see what time it was.''
Well, it wasn't exactly that neat, but damned near when Col. North said that the reason they have shredders in the National Security Council offices is in order to shred things. It was in the category of the why-do-you-rob-banks question, the answer to which made Willie Sutton famous. But, inevitably, the levity blurred into the major question, the untangleability of which is exactly what is going to doom these long proceedings to ultimate meaninglessness. Because the salient question, the only question, is: Should this particular document have been shredded? Or should it have been saved, in order to assist a congressional investigating committee, or a special prosecutor, to do its job?
But such questions are not reasonably put to such as Col. North, and not that easily put even to those with higher positions of responsibility than Col. North exercised. He tended to rely on rather obvious answers: that the material he was shredding involved, among other things, the identities of persons whose lives hung on confidentiality. Obviously, one is going to destroy such a document as that. But from something as obvious as that the line begins to move, and the question then arises: Does that line reach a point readily discernible where the balance changes and the burden is overwhelmingly on the shredder?
One can without any problem conceive of a hypothetical situation in which that would be so. ''Memo to Col. North: While Congressman B. Grande was in Rome, Operative X slipped him a thousand bucks in return for his promise to change his vote next time around on the Boland Amendment.'' Fiction yields up such stuff, and so does life; but busy operating agents engaged in covert operations can't reasonably be asked to come up with the relevant perspective. What may seem a document entirely innocent in its implications may in fact prove, in certain circumstances, to be dynamite. Richard Nixon discovered that.
In what direction should someone engaged in intelligence operations lean? Col. North, when asked if his motives had been political, made the mistake, on one occasion, of saying, ''Yes.'' He should have said that the objectives -- political and strategic -- were in many cases indistinguishable.
Heavy questions have been raised, and not all of them will be answered. But the question that is raising the least public attention is really this: Should the commander in chief of the United States have done everything constitutionally possible to help to defend hemispheric interests from further satellization by the Soviet Union?
On this point there are two distinct camps, and Col. North is the most visible public activist standing behind the position that, yes, we should have helped the contras, we should continue to help the contras, and we should be proud to do so. His public support is very extensive. It goes, I judge, beyond his telegenic manners. He is a spokesman of a position that has been mealy-mouthed to death by the ambiguists, who tend to try to run our foreign policy from Congress; the kind of people so articulately and eloquently abhorred by Daniel Patrick Moynihan while he served in the United Nations, whose ranks he went on, alas, to join.
Which brings me to a fresher proposal than anything likely to come out of the hearings in Washington. Oliver North was brought up in New York -- upstate somewhere. When this is over, which will be not too far off, why doesn't he run for senator? Run on a clear, hard defense-line position. The reaffirmation of the Monroe Doctrine, if you want to think big. Let him and Pat Moynihan debate that issue, and see what the voters of New York tell us. Probably they will say that the reason we have elections is to vote people in and out of office.