Lt. Col. Oliver North's appearance before the congressional committee brought out the Walter Mitty in me. I have fired questions at him that have made the bemedaled colonel writhe on the witness stand. My finest moment in fantasyland came when the decorated Marine suggested to his interrogators that the shredding machine was not an offensive weapon, that there were shredding machines purchased by the government all over town. I paused, fixed the brave witness with an icy stare -- a faint smile on my face to disarm him -- and said softly, "I know, colonel, and there are ovens all over town too, but they don't put people in them."
At that point, I was brought back to reality by calls from passionate colleagues reacting to last Sunday's column applauding Newsweek for blowing the whistle on Col. North. You may recall that the news weekly revealed that the source of a national security story it carried was in large part Col. North, not Congress, the target of Col. North's accusations. My news colleagues almost unanimously thought what the Newsweek editors had done was reprehensible and even hinted that I might be one of those journalists "out to get" Col. North. As I told them, nothing could be further from the truth except, possibly, Col. North.
Now, let me turn to the shredding machines who call themselves lifelong subscribers to The Post. Two calls last Friday accused editors of deliberately attempting that morning to defame the president with the photograph showing him pointing a finger at the tip of his ailing nose. Under the picture was an article with the headline "Big Cocaine Seizure." That headline and the photo were juxtaposed deliberately, they charged. Would it were that The Post layout was planned so carefully. Not long ago, there was a photograph of Sen. Alan Simpson that did make him look like the devil incarnate, almost a caricature of actor Jack Nicholson in the witchcraft movie. A number of readers, including a federal judge, phoned to protest the selection of this terrible picture. I called Sen. Simpson to find out how he felt about it. "When I picked up The Post from my doorstep this morning," he said, "and saw that picture, I just laughed my ass off."
Book World is almost above reproach. But last Sunday it carried reviews with two bylines that were identified in footnotes as pseudonyms. I thought this unfair -- authors and readers have a right to know the real names of critics. It was explained to me that both these reviewers are authors themselves, and are known by their pseudonyms, but Post policy is to advise readers when pen names are used. The ombudsman was informed, gently, that if Mark Twain wrote a review for Book World, Post policy would require a footnote saying his byline was a nom de plume.
After this put-down, I did not bother to bring up another point in the same issue, where a review referred to a "Sergeant Major Campbell," and in the next paragraph it was "Major Campbell," a battlefield promotion if I ever saw one.
The story last week that caused the ombudsman the most discomfort was an update on the James Beggs/General Dynamics case. A caption to a picture of Mr. Beggs said he'd been forced to resign as head of NASA, not that the indictment was dismissed because it was groundless. The article's headline screamed: "Case Against General Dynamics Tripped Over Two Little Words." But the reader had to plow through hundreds of words to learn those "two little words" were "best efforts" rather than "not guilty." The Justice Department was made to sound noble for having dropped the case when it discovered it had none, and in the story's last paragraph the prosecutor contritely offered an apology for having put together a case that fell apart.
So where does all this leave the honorable James Beggs, former administrator of NASA? It leaves him for the second time in a fortnight with his picture in The Post bearing a caption stating he was forced to resign from NASA. The ombudsman's effort the first time to sensitize the editors to how unfair this was had no apparent effect. The least The Post could do is offer him a free job-wanted classified on Sunday, which I understand unfailingly gets results.