Elliott Abrams, he of the permanently curled lip, has finally found someone worthy of respect.
The assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, whose contempt for Congress and others who disagree with him has made him a folk villain in certain circles, throws words like stones at those who dare question him. As chief of the State Department's Human Rights Division, he urged victims of repression to pull up their socks and remember that communism is worse. For lawmakers who fail to understand how slaughtering peasants will promote democracy in Managua, he has sneers and snarls that have made him teacher's pet of the Reagan administration.
The Senate and House select committees on the Iran-contra scandal have ample documentation that his exertions for the cause extend to lying. He calls it "mistaken" or "wrong" testimony, given because he did not have "authorization" to tell the truth or because someone he trusted lied to him.
Other witnesses told other stories. He dismissed them.
Only one person, who is yet to be heard from, is safe from his scorn.
That is Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, his fellow-commandante in the secret war.
What Abrams found mainly to praise in North was something nobody else has noticed, bureaucratic correctness. Others, notably Abrams' boss, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, saw him as "a loose cannon." Not Abrams. North, he said approvingly, "went through channels" -- that is, through Abrams.
When, for instance, the new president of Costa Rica proposed to have a press conference revealing the presence of a secret airstrip intended as a contra supply base, North thought he should be muscled and asked Abrams how to go about it. Abrams saw to it that the proper pressure was applied. The press conference was canceled.
Abrams had chosen a difficult double-image to present as he stood with his back to the wall. He was at once a man completely in charge and a victim of misinformation from other agencies -- although he believes passionately in "trust" among associates. This especially applied to North. The Marine assured him that he was doing nothing illegal; the Harvard Law School graduate believed him.
Abrams was a difficult witness because he would slither away from questions. He would glide into a nearby copse of unsought detail about other matters, or if the questioner moved close, turn and attack. "C'mon, c'mon," he would say with menace in his voice. On the morning of the second day, he was shouting at Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine) as if Cohen were in the dock.
Did he feel betrayed by the CIA, which told him there was no U.S. connection with the shot-down Hasenfus plane or the National Security Council? Yes, he said.
"Did Oliver North betray you?" Cohen asked.
There was the longest pause of his long testimony. Finally, he said, with reluctance in his voice, "At times."
The attraction of the man of action for the man of words was easy to understand. During the Vietnam years, Abrams was the only member of his Harvard class supporting Hubert Humphrey; North was out in the bush killing commies. "Elliott wanted to be one of the boys," says Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who has fought Abrams tooth and nail on Nicaragua.
In 1985, Abrams was given a sissy assignment by a Congress that didn't quite dare cut off the contras. He had to run the humanitarian-assistance program -- "No-how," he called it. He got a contra request for wristwatches and wrestled with the moral question of whether they were "lethal."
But when North suggested a blood-curdling plan to solve the contras' public relations problem -- by having them seize a town, be killed day by day, "fighting up to the last man . . .
Alamo-style" -- Abrams didn't turn a hair.
Wasn't it wrong and crazy? he was asked.
"It was not wrong to come up with ideas," he said huffily.
Abrams lied about big things and little things. On Nov. 25, he told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that he had never solicited contra funds. Just months before, he got from the sultan of Brunei a $10 million contribution. When the truth came out, he said, he was conscience-stricken and sought to hurry back and fess up.
Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) set the record straight. The committee had called him, and the apology had to be wrung out of him, not occurring until page 83 of a 115-page transcript.
Several members expressed doubt that Abrams can survive as assistant secretary of state. Abrams said he plans to. But another kind of survival may be on his mind. He may have been trying to win immunity from North, praising him for the same reason that Ronald Reagan calls him "a national hero."