The Democrats, holding all the cards but one, lost the Iran-contra hearings. Now they hope at least to salvage the blocking of contra aid from the wreckage left by the King of Hearts, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.
The Republicans have been gleefully lobbying for the contras on national television, with an audience of millions. It was their long-sought chance to "educate" the American public on the issue, and they believe that with North at the blackboard they have succeeded.
The Democrats did not oppose the views that were put forth by the Republican cheerleaders. Senate Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) insisted the policy was not the question, a notion that the GOP cheerfully trampled in their rush to explain to the television audience that their very survival as a free nation was at stake.
"They sat there like warts on a pickle," says Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who campaigned against the contras, and one of the few Democrats willing to be quoted about the conduct of the hearings. Inouye alone ventured to explain his anti-contra vote. He made a long, moving speech about his war record and the rights of individuals but was interrupted by North's lawyer, who erupted when the senator mentioned Nuremberg.
"The sight of lawyers shouting at members of Congress is disgraceful," says Slaughter. "It never should have been allowed. It's all so disheartening."
Other Democrats criticize the hearings, but not on the record. "Disastrous" is the favored adjective. Letting North testify on his own terms was the single greatest strategic mistake, critics say. One, asking anonymity, said the committees should have told North, "We are the U.S. Congress, you are a lieutenant colonel. We make the rules."
Victims of their own diffidence and their deadlines, the committees, over the vociferous objections of Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), accepted North's adamant refusal to give a deposition behind the scenes. The rest is television and, possibly political, history.
But, says Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), House deputy whip and chairman of the House anti-contra task force, "there has been little movement." North churned up the national psyche, but the votes have not shifted.
Bonior has organized the most elaborate anti-contra campaign in the long, sad story of the battle against President Reagan's beloved freedom fighters. Bonior says the troops are "activated and vigorous. We don't think we've lost more than two or three votes in spite of North."
Bonior uses as a benchmark the 230 votes cast last March for a moratorium on further aid -- $40 million of a $100 million package previously voted -- until previous consignments had been accounted for. The Senate, however, voted to release the $40 million. Some House members said it was their last contra aid vote; it was one for the road, just to honor a commitment. They are all being buttonholed, massaged, monitored and urged to let task-force members know if they need help on other legislation. Those who took the pledge, he reports, are holding steady.
Anti-contras are taking "special orders," that is, requesting time for speeches after the regular House session ends. Bonior gave one the other night and held up pictures of women and children killed in contra raids. The Republicans are counterattacking in the graphics war by posting up blown-up pictures of North and the slides he came within an ace of showing at a committee session.
"Everyone," Bonior says, "understands this is monumental for the party."
The anti-contra forces crave most a high-profile convert, preferably from the committees, which have been hearing the awful truth about contra fans in the administration. Rep. Ed Jenkins (D-Ga.), a member of the House Iran-contra committee who prefaces his questions of administration witnesses with a declaration that he supports the contras, too, would be a prize. No Georgia Democrat in the House voted against the contras except Wyche Fowler Jr., who went on to the Senate, even so. An even greater prize would be Georgia's redoubtable Sen. Sam Nunn, who has asked the hearing's most incisive questions. Democrats speak wistfully of recruiting the big money men in the party who want Nunn on the national ticket to win him over.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) says the hearings aren't the key to contra aid. "When we lock horns and the reasons we have always had for opposing it come back to the surface, people of common sense will realize nothing has changed. The leadership of the contras is still ex-Somozista, the contras have not taken a foot of ground, they still commit atrocities. People may have sympathized with Oliver North, but they will realize there are better ways of containing communism in Central America."