There was much indignation in Congress the week before last that Oliver North, the witness, was playacting before the Iran-contra committee. Well, of course he was. Very slick, very phony, in my opinion. But so in large measure was the committee playacting. I think viewers knew this, sensed at once that there is something not quite jake about the committee procedure as advertised, and so they were disposed to favor the witness who seemed to beat the interrogators at their own game. Since truth and falsehood and all the many shadings in between are what is in play here, we could do worse than try to identify, among witnesses as well as their interrogators, the main groupings in a rising order of malignity from relatively innocuous showboating to dissembling and lying.

Showboating. Here we are dealing with little more than posturing, tableau making for the TV cameras, all those sight gags designed to snow a presumably gullible audience.

Early on in the proceedings I found myself dividing the participants into the grown-ups and the rest. It pretty much came down to a distinction between the ones who asked reasonable questions and eschewed tricks and the ones who couldn't bear to pass up a chance to make a greasy, self-promoting comment. Sam Nunn, Tom Foley, William Cohen were notably in the first group, along with some others.

The wives, and in some cases kids, were part of the witnesses' tableaux, and they played their walk-ons well, but I felt sorry for them, even for Mrs. North sitting there ostentatiously holding a huge stack of menacing (to the committee) telegrams. The two witnesses' wives I know a little, Jonda McFarlane and Linda Poindexter, are both very strong, attractive, interesting women, a high-school English teacher and an Episcopalian priest. Both doubtless have plenty to say about their husbands' circumstances. But the families are brought there and put in camera range for symbolic reasons only: the provision of visible moral support.

I don't remember whether this was the practice before the Watergate hearings, but it certainly reached full flower then. It has, I think, a subtly harmful implication -- namely that the witness is in big trouble; he is being assaulted by the committee, but his family is standing by him anyway, and the innocence, rectitude and devotion of the family are seen as secondary evidence that the witness must be pretty all right himself. The presence of the families adds to the uncomfortable sense that this thing being called a hearing or an investigation is really something else.

Dissembling. Let's move one rung up the ladder to dissembling: the aspects of the proceedings that range from impersonation to deception. We all know that sometimes the witnesses' lawyers will start making trouble not because something unfair has been done to their client but just to give the impression that it has. So the witness's lawyer is feigning outrage. But feigning is the rule, not the exception, in these hearings. One reason the committee was so angry at Oliver North's failure to give them closed-session testimony before he came on in open session was that this meant they did not, as they usually do, know the answer to their publicly put questions in advance. Generally the questioners are only feigning curiosity in their questioning: they know the facts of what they are asking about, know what the witness will reply. They had known, remember, for some time, what Adm. John Poindexter would say in July -- the big "bombshell" about destroying a document and about not telling the president certain key things. Yes, it is true that these are things that trial lawyers do, but there are differences. This impersonation is being televised for all the world to see, and its theatricality must be a kind of end in itself as there is no judge or jury to decide the case, merely a vast audience to impress and convince.

The world that is posited in these exchanges is not the real one. This is another aspect of the dissembling. It is a world more orderly and logical than the one anybody lives in. Everybody knows that in the real world, piles of documentary junk pass across the busy person's desk and that everything he puts his initials to or writes a buck note on, he hasn't necessarily read. But in the gotcha game, the initials are good enough for evidence that someone did in fact know what he professes not to have known. Likewise, no one in Washington who asks for money actually asks for money, so administration figures can truthfully -- in a technical sense -- assert that they did not ask for money. The deed is done in ways all understand. Among legislators, for instance, one way you ask for money is to observe to a person of means who needs your assistance on some bill that he wasn't in attendance at your last fund-raiser. Such solicitors never ask for money; they say: "Hey, Al, didn't see you Friday night." This is not asking for money. Something comparable, though in a different idiom, is how money was raised without asking for it for the contras.

Lying. Well, we are pretty near the act of frontal lying. This takes us from the interrogators to the events they are investigating, especially the cover-ups. A great deal of shelter has been taken over the months in these technicalities to disguise what actually happened. I didn't take the cookie . . . (he handed it to me); I didn't eat the cookie . . . (part of it broke off, so I ate only part of the cookie). This I call lying. We have heard a lot of it. North tried to describe his own lies as heroic; hadn't come easy, he said with a self-pitying sigh. Others have claimed forgetfulness above and beyond the normal call of what afflicts the extremely busy official. Caught saying no when the truth was yes, public officials have said that in some metaphysical sense only they seem able to grasp, they were telling the truth. The White House claims its past statements don't say what they said, but something else. Arms for hostages was the deal, but it was not a trade. No one seems ashamed. It is the scourge of the age. Richard Nixon commends Gary Hart's performance after Hart has lied outright to the nation. They have a warm exchange of notes about how trying it is that men like themselves are deflected by these minor concerns from addressing the issues.

I think the issue is that the injunction against lying is being repealed by our leaders. It is terrible politics, not just terrible morality. People are awfully good at sensing these things. The irony is that none of this is deceiving the intended audience, only confirming it in its worst suspicion.

1987, Newsweek, Inc. Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.

The injunction against lying is being repealed by our leaders. It's terrible morality and terrible politics.