EVERYONE, or almost everyone, was extravagantly polite to Lt. Col. Oliver North during his testimony; obsequious might be a better word. The proceedings got pretty mawkish, too, as legislators vied with the witness to see who could tell a more stirring tale of his American roots and so forth. Sen. Inouye even told the tale of little George Washington and the cherry tree. But both the general goo and the notion that the telegrams Col. North was getting from people around the country should alter the nature of the inquiry missed the meaning of what was going on. A lot of things Col. North said required challenge -- challenge that was buried on the rare occasions it occurred in the legislators' flow of statements about their beliefs and themselves.
First there is the matter of heroism. Col. North, like Sen. Inouye and some of the others on the committee, is a bona fide war hero: he has been heroic in military combat. That is a record that invites respect and awe. But Col. North seemed to want to extend this idea of heroism to everything else he has done, much of which seems anything but heroic. He regularly conveyed the notion, for instance, that there was something valorous about his coming before the committee, about acknowledging under oath that he had lied about his conduct habitually in the past. He even implied that there was something borderline heroic in those previous lies themselves -- it wasn't easy for him to lie, he told the committee with the air of a man who had really made a sacrifice.
Come on: everyone over the age of 3 knows that it is generally easier to lie than not to when you've been caught at something, that lying is not so much valorous as self-protective. And Col. North, appearing under hard negotiated terms of limited immunity and in the constant hovering presence of his attorney, was not doing something heroic but something prudent in telling the truth under oath about his prior lies. Col. North availed himself of his rights, just as he did when he took the Fifth Amendment, and to do so was surely legitimate. But noble? Brave? It is to cheapen true acts of battlefield valor to try to extend the aura of heroism to legal maneuverings and manipulations.
Then there is the substance of what Col. North said. His six days of testimony were followed yesterday by a second appearance by his erstwhile superior, Robert McFarlane. The former national security adviser sharply contradicted Col. North on the officer's central and sensitive claim that in all that he did he had had the approval of his superiors -- their number presumably including, for a time, Mr. McFarlane. Mr. McFarlane also took issue with some of the specific statements about him that Col. North had made. The point here is that Col. North's testimony, like that of everyone else, remains to be carefully corroborated and reviewed. The committee will have to resolve the contradictions between the two men's testimony.
Finally there is the matter of accountability, which Rep. Lee Hamilton underlined yesterday in the course of a probing and eloquent analysis of the pervasive disrespect Col. North had shown toward the processes of democratic government. Mr. Hamilton got to the heart of the Iran-contra affair: President Reagan's secret, unprincipled and costly reversal of policy on Iran and the hostages. This is the error from which all other errors flowed and the one whose consequences -- the new Soviet political leverage in the Gulf, for instance -- are still unfolding.
Of five key documents that Col. North said he had written on the diversion of arms sales proceeds, Mr. Hamilton noted, the officer had been unable to recall either whether they had been returned to him or whether they had been destroyed. There had been no accounting, Mr. Hamilton said, for $8 million earned from the sale to Iran of U.S. arms or for a $250,000 sum ''available to you.'' Mr. Hamilton said he believed Col. North when the latter said he never took a penny. ''But we have no records to support or to contradict what you say. Indeed, most of the important records concerning these events have been destroyed.'' Thus had Congress, denied a role in the creating of a ''radically changed'' policy, been cut out of a role in overseeing its evolution as well.
The question about Oliver North was never his heroism or his personability or his dedication to what he considers right. The question was always the role he had played in the crazy adventure that President Reagan launched when he decided to open arms-for-hostages dealings with Iran. That is the path Congress must keep exploring as the hearings go on.