Last Friday, on the fourth day of the reign of King Oliver North, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), a large, pear-shaped, white-topped figure, was wandering around the halls outside the Senate Caucus Room holding a vase of red roses and looking for cameras to tell the wondrous story of how they had been delivered to his office for transmission to the idol's wife. Hyde was honored to turn delivery boy.
His House Republican brothers whined a good deal about the time taken in the questioning by committee counsels John W. Nields Jr. and Arthur L. Liman. Hyde gleefully disengaged himself from the laments. "I think that the counsels are doing a superb job," he gloated.
What he meant, of course, was that only a fool would want to grill the country's new television sensation. On the witness table before North was a pile of adulatory telegrams as high as the stack of documents he shredded when he found out last November that being a martyr for Reagan could lead to becoming a convict.
During the break on the fifth day, the emperor of the airwaves stepped out on the balcony around the corner from the hearing room and took the screaming plaudits of the multitude below. Would-be spectators stood in breathless, 100-degree heat. Their ecstatic huzzas echoed through the corridors.
The lean Marine with the long tongue and the cocked chin has changed the investigation from an inquiry into White House lawlessness to a probe of Congress and its right to exist or at least to oppose a president. North's appearance had rent the civility between the two committees and the sometimes tenuous predicate that the Constitution empowers them to ask questions of patriots like him.
Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) did as well as anyone to drag the discussion back on track. He chose to take up the little question of our system of government; North reproached him for the unseemliness of a former federal judge taxing a poor Marine on constitutional issues.
Mitchell noted that North, in one of his many rhetorical flights, had implored his listeners, "for the love of God and the love of country," to continue contra aid.
Mitchell begged him to remember that "it is possible for an American to disagree with you on aid to the contras and still love God and still love this country just as much as you do."
For once, North did not have the last word, and Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) declared a recess, during which the monarch was importuned to put his left-handed autograph on magazines with his picture on the cover.
Sen. Paul S. Trible (R-Va.), the fair-haired, anxious candidate for reelection, was up next. Probably the best news he has heard since his ordeal began was when North, a fellow Virginian, said hotly last week, "I have no political ambitions."
In the early days, the senator tried to be tactful, as befits a loyal Republican who must not guess wrong. On hearing the grasping general Richard V. Secord tell of marking up arms for Iran by 600 percent because he wanted to build up the kitty for the contras and jacking up the contra prices by 41 percent because of patriotic fervor, Trible asked if he were "privateer or patriot" and then decided he was a little of both.
Lately he has begun to succumb to the facts. North, however, posed a terrifying challenge, and Trible preambled with a declaration to North that "You have captured the imagination of the American people," and "You have done that because you have told the truth fully and candidly."
He went on to introduce a little theater to show one of several contradictions in North's testimony.
He had the colonel read aloud an impassioned PROF message about the plight of the bootless, bullet-short, undernourished contras and pointed out that the arms-sale profits amassed by Secord then stood at $4.8 million. North mumbled something about the possibility of the money having been set aside for the private, auxiliary CIA that he and William J. Casey would have set up to further U.S. foreign policy interests "in the short term."
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the most egregious of the president's defenders, brought the proceedings to their lowest point. He offered a few ritual protests: he doesn't think the NSC should do covert actions; he wishes North hadn't lied to Congress or shredded evidence; and while he thinks diversion of the ayatollah's money to the contras was "a neat idea," he knows it isn't right.
"But I tell you, I don't want you prosecuted," he reassured North. "I don't. And I think there's going to be a lot of hell raised if you are."
Hatch's Supreme Court hopes were recently dashed by the nomination of Robert H. Bork. But if North is elected president, a proposal being advanced by his fans, Hatch will make it. Government by feeling, not laws, is what counts.