FINALLY SOMEONE got up in front of the Iran-contra committee and, without having to look to one side at his lawyer or over his shoulder at the specter of a special prosecutor, spoke to Congress with evident ease. He spoke, moreover, in a manner producing none of the questions about truthfulness and memory capacity that have attended the testimony of other witnesses. This was the testimony of Secretary of State George Shultz yesterday. He was startlingly outspoken.

From different quarters the secretary had been accused in the Iran-contra affair of insufficient zeal, first in failing to force a confrontation with the president over policy differences and then, once the president got into the soup, in failing to come to his defense by signing on after the fact to a disastrous policy. Secretary Shultz argued that the best and only real defense of the president was the act of trying to end the misguided actions that had created the trouble and trying to get the facts to the president past the barriers set up by NSC staff and CIA Director Casey. The man who emerged yesterday was a very different Shultz from the one assumed in the complaints. He was not someone self-servingly lethargic and sphinxlike, but an official whose loyalty to the president, and doggedness and lack of petty pride, allowed him to suffer repeated and painful humiliations at the hands of less principled bureaucratic interlopers in order to stay engaged in the policy wars to serve his chief. If he had a fault, it was a lack of imagination: he was square, straight; he simply could not imagine that colleagues in government, responsible officials, could lie to him and deceive the president, repeatedly and to such dismal effect.

Interestingly, the President Reagan who emerged from Mr. Shultz's testimony yesterday was notably a more sympathetic and engaged figure than the implausible president depicted in the testimony of his NSC staff members. Mr. Shultz takes the view that Mr. Reagan acted as he did because he was getting bad information. Others will challenge that. They will say that the president was getting bad information because only on the basis of bad information could the objectives of at-any-cost retrieval of the hostages and support of the contras be pursued. But the secretary has indubitably established a couple of things. One is that the level of internal deception and knifework in this administration was extraordinary by any standard: the conflict between the good and the bad, to echo a recent phrase, led to a prolonged bout of the ugly. Another is that our current obsession with heroes and heroics needs work.

The hearings have produced an extended and mostly silly national colloquy on the nature of heroes. Self-dramatizing Oliver North is widely designated one of the breed. We see no heroes in this affair. But we do see some people who, in difficult circumstances, acted, if not always wisely and effectively, then honorably and with intelligence. George Shultz is surely one. He was not as alert as he might have been to the machinations of others; his judgment about his associates, including the president, was often sanguine. But he was thinking about the right conduct of policy; he brought good sense to a subject that brought out the loony in others; he tried to get the government to act in ways that were rational and strong. That he failed is a judgment on Mr. Shultz, not just on those he was doing battle with. But the secretary offered Mr. Reagan his best judgment, and Mr. Reagan lost much of value when he decided not to take it.