Edwin Meese III, bulky, fair-haired, intermittently affable, was born to be a henchman. In that capacity, he served Ronald Reagan loyally for 20 years. But success seduced him into believing that he could be a figure in his own right, and over the misgivings about the doughy quality of his mind and his ethics, he was made attorney general. He is now under investigation by two independent counsels.

At the Iran-contra hearings, three New England senators laid bare to him his inadequacies as the nation's chief law-enforcement officer. Quietly, pleasantly, they divested him of his delusions and what was left of his credibility. The one thing that was not in doubt by the end of his appearance was Meese's mediocrity.

He kept pointing out the glories of his "fact-finding inquiry" -- all the facts had stood up, he asserted. The FBI had admired it. So had the Criminal Division of the Justice Department. As for the wonderful "diversion" memo, the single lethal document that escaped Oliver North's strenuous shredding, everyone had reacted most satisfactorily. North was "surprised." So was the president. So was then-chief of staff Donald T. Regan. What more could he have done?

Emissaries from town-meeting country, two Republicans and one Democrat, told him. They gave him the questions he should have asked last November, when he volunteered to step in and end the "confusion" in the babble coming out of the White House when the arms plot was exposed. Of his prowess as an investigator, nothing was left but a feeling that had he been sent to check out Bluebeard's castle, he would have come back with a glowing report about the admirable condition of the cutlery.

Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), who is, to borrow a phrase used by Rear Adm. John Poindexter about Reagan's situation last November, "being beaten about the head and shoulders" back home for disloyal behavior in the hearings. Rudman, a prosecutor long before he was a senator, devours facts. He is caught by conflicts in testimony, which are many, and by absurdities, which have been more. Rudman has shielded the president but not his subordinates.

Meese is a man who, without even seeing them firsthand, knew that there were freeloaders in soup-kitchen lines. But on being told wildly varying stories by principals in the Iran drama, he resists any thought of criminal behavior.

"People who couldn't remember things or remembered them differently were occupied in probably the biggest event in the history of the presidency," he told Rudman huffily, "namely President Reagan's meeting with the general secretary of the Soviet Union."

Rudman said, "We're now talking about something where, obviously, you've either got a cover story or you've got somebody with a terrible memory who's confusing oil-drilling equipment with missiles."

Meese, the trusting bloodhound, at one point sent North, whose shredder had been chomping since Eugene Hasenfus was shot down in Nicaragua a month earlier, back to the files in search of proof that the diversion was ever carried out.

Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine) took up when Rudman left off. He is ambitious and a party man, but he learned long ago, as a junior member of the House impeachment committee, that while voters appreciate loyalty to the GOP, they appreciate even more knowing when leaders lie. Cohen goes in for parallels, ironies, connections. He brought out the known, but under the circumstances, depressed fact that Meese sits on the National Security Council. He had participated in the awful decision to sell arms to Iran. "A close call," Meese said, adding an ill-fitting homburg to his other hats.

Like his leader, he tends to embellish. He said he and his fellow geopoliticians had sat around in the White House talking about an approach to Iran since 1981. He thinks that North might have been shredding "irrelevant" documents from 11 in the evening to 4:15 the next morning when Meese and his men were stalking him.

Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) drove home the message that the truth can be found only by those seeking it.

Mitchell is a dark, unthreatening man who was once a federal judge. He took the attorney general through his hasty, hack inquiry. Had he noticed, Mitchell asked, that North had told him one thing and the committees another? Meese said he was hearing it for the first time. Like Reagan, he had not watched North's testimony. North testified that CIA Director William J. Casey knew of the diversion. Casey told Meese he knew nothing about it. But Meese didn't ask Casey what he knew about the diversion, because Meese "didn't have all the facts."

"What I have told you is the absolute truth," he told Mitchell.

Mitchell shook his head. "It's just very hard to accept," he said. "There are so many questions."