NOW THAT PEOPLE in Washington are being retrained for life without the televized Iran-contra hearings, taking crafts classes in the afternoons or possibly getting reacquainted with their office routine, the grim conclusions are pouring forth. What was all that about? it is asked rhetorically, or sort of rhetorically, since the implied answer is: not very much. Some are afraid the culprits got away with too much, that they snookered theamericanpeople (this became one word, totally stuck together, fairly early in the proceedings and applied to all American people not in the room who shared one's point of view). Others assert, in the booming, resonant voice you use when you're not so sure, that all has been explained and that all have been proved innocent, including of course the guilty who were only guilty of an extravagant love of country or an admirable excess of loyalty to the boss.
But surely theamericanpeople and a few others as well know what those hearings were about. Yes, as it is pretty much with all our politics, the event itself seemed to be made up in equal parts of serious endeavor and shameless play. But what emerged was clear: deepened evidence of and insight into a gigantic and persisted-in political mistake (the Iran hornswoggle) and a subconspiracy by incompetent dolts to run a private government, answerable to no one, on the side -- and to cheat and trim and lie when their activities began to become known. Now some of the parties are accusing one another of being the one that doctored the documents or suggested the cover-up, but we do certainly know that there was such activity and that in some degree, anyway, there still is. We know the latter from, among other things, the night-and-day contradictions between certain witnesses' testimony. So, of course the public hearings did not answer all the questions. But they did confirm the outlines of what was suspected and provisionally known.
The ironies -- so large and weird they are almost impossible to assimilate -- abide. Israel, for example, whom the Iranians affect to abominate above all others -- except, perhaps, us and Saddam Hussein -- was deeply engaged in the arms dealings with the ayatollah's gang and an encourager of and partner in our debacle. Here at home, more recently, there is another savage irony: the pathetic efforts of the titans of law and order to extenuate and excuse the lying and cheating and other sharp practice of those in and around the administration who were caught out. The arguments become hilarious, as the defenders of men who bent the Reagan administration out of shape with their misguided plots, their deceptions and their destruction of documents fall back on what they would, in other circumstances, denounce as "permissiveness" toward lawbreakers or "situational ethics" as alibi. Those poor fellows wouldn't have had to sneak around so much and violate the law if the law had not been there in the first place, we are accusingly told. We should understand how frustrated they were and how they had to act in secrecy because otherwise they couldn't have done the dingbat things they were doing. We should understand that the money raised for the contras is . . . well . . . somewhere. We should understand (this was the attorney general's stunning contribution) that all those government papers Oliver North reduced to a fine dice in his busy Cuisinart -- five hours of shredding -- may not have been relevant to the Iran-contra diversion . . . who is to say, since these documents are no more?
But finally the supreme irony and an especially mean one is that within much of Ronald Reagan's constituency and among many who think they are doing him a service, the particular men who have done him more political damage than the Democrats could ever have begun to are being lionized. Whether he led them or merely allowed them do this damage and whether by direction or default is almost beside the point. The damage has been done, and it is not only to Mr. Reagan's political standing and interests but also to the country's standing and interests overseas. We have never held with those who wanted Ronald Reagan to abase himself, to "apologize" for what happened. We think most people probably feel that way. The truth is that there is no satisfactory conclusion to this affair possible any longer. What is wanted is simply an acknowledgment, a sign that the president knows what has been brought about by these men and what was wrong with it.