James (Scotty) Reston, who stands with Walter Lippmann as American journalism's most influential commentator of the last 50 years, once promulgated what should be characterized as Reston's Rule for Reporters. Beware, he warned, of making the deadline but missing the point.

For the last three months, many reporters have been making the Iran-contra deadline but, now that the public hearings have ended, how well did we grasp the point?

There is, of course, no agreement on the main significance of the congressional hearings, nor can there be, given the contradictory nature of the voluminous record before the public and the highly partisan political atmosphere surrounding it. That record is open to numerous interpretations and will be analyzed and debated for years. But, before memory of the experience fades, here's one view of what the hearings accomplished.

The most important aspect of the hearings is a negative, that is, what would the consequences have been for the democratic system if the hearings had not been held?

Indisputably documented these last three months was a we-know-best, above-the-law brand of zealotry that flourished in Ronald Reagan's second term. This mentality, coupled with an obsessive penchant for secrecy, led Reagan's administration deeper and deeper into the world of covert operations and extralegal actions. These actions were unaccountable to normal processes of government and unknown to elected officials in Congress, to senior Cabinet officers, according to their testimony, and to the American people.

Despite all that has been revealed about the secret arms deals, multiple covert Swiss bank accounts and clandestine military resupply efforts for the Nicaraguan contras, the hearings ended with the disturbing notion that these were only a part of other, secret worldwide operations formed to carry out what testimony vaguely described at several points as "other projects." What these were for, who authorized them and what damage they could cause are unknown. It also isn't known whether these projects were being planned or being carried out, leaving the public with many major, unanswered questions about them.

Beyond dispute is another fact brought out in the hearings. It involves the kinds of attitudes that produced and sanctioned the secret operations. The evidence is unmistakable that the more the Reagan administration embarked on secret activities, the greater the appetite for them increased inside the White House, especially considering the apparent success in keeping them secret and beyond political and perhaps legal accountability.

Left unchecked, such secret and perhaps illegal activities operating out of the White House were a threat to the American governmental system. The hearings did not end this kind of threat nor offer guarantees that such problems will not recur.

Depending on their personal and political views, critics of the hearings complained that they were boring, a waste of time and money, an unwarranted intrusion into the president's powers to set the nation's foreign policy agenda and unfair to Reagan.

All of these were demonstrably untrue. Even if they were dull, which they certainly were not, and even with reporters' fabled one-day-wonder mentality and the public's lack of attention span, the hearings served a significant purpose: They provided an open forum for examination of fundamental constitutional questions.

Most emphatically, the hearings gave Reagan and the causes he espouses -- from contra aid to necessity for covert operations -- the best possible defense he will receive. The president, courtesy of his many backers on the investigating committees, was given every break and every conceivable chance to offer justification or rationalization for his actions and inaction.

Also aired most favorably were his pursuit of wrongheaded, if not disastrous, policies. Lest there be any question about those policies, doubters need only refer to the latest television pictures of screaming Iranian mobs and of U.S. ships shepherding reflagged Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf.

Keeping in mind Reston's Rule, the most important fact about the Iran-contra hearings was that they were held. They provided a necessary check on abuses of power and, by educating the public however imperfectly, served to alert the people to the dangers of such abuses.