Comes now an instance of a book that is better than the television series on which it is based. "The Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran Contra Affair" is 690 pages long and tells us little that is new, but it states truths that cried out to be put in the clear, crisp, grave tones that the many authors have managed to sustain throughout.
Of course, we knew that "the Iran-contra affair was characterized by pervasive dishonesty and inordinate secrecy." Of course, we knew that "the lies, omissions, shredding, attempts to rewrite history all continued, even after the president authorized the attorney general to find out the facts."
And, of course, we knew that the "ultimate responsibility rests with the president" -- he has said so himself -- and that "if the president did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have."
But having it stated without static from some vacant-eyed zealot on the committee is somehow satisfying. Typically, the House Republicans and their Senate confederates filed a voluminous minority report that manages to be as silly as their "questions" to witnesses. They loutishly call the majority findings "hysterical." They claim that nothing happened, or at least nothing illegal, and if it did, it was the fault of Congress for leaking or wimping out on contra aid with the Boland Amendment.
In a final clownish touch, the minority leaked its report before it had been officially declassified.
The official report signed by 15 Democrats and three Republican senators even boldly addresses basic questions of national policy, something which the members, who in the Caucus Room were afflicted with a kind of fatal diffidence toward the president and the facts, did not feel free to raise.
For example, the report asks whether covert action, with which the record is replete, can ever be compatible with democracy and our stated ideals. This was something that never came up during the months of exposition of secret airfields, secret airdrops, covert dispatch of missiles and presidentially inscribed Bibles to Iran.
The report is, in short, the Iran-contra affair without the distracting televised presence of Oliver L. North. The Marine lieutenant colonel, who moved arms and men around the globe with only Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter to guide him, mugged the committees in the Caucus Room. Without his wolfish grin, his misty-eyed protests of love for the contras, the president and his family, without the flowers, the telegrams and his cowed questioners, the story is infinitely clearer and more compelling.
We are able to find out what it was all about. "The common ingredients of the Iran and contra policies were secrecy, deception and disdain for the law."
To see all this written down is to see that the English language is still relevant. The consequences of the hearing were, in practical terms, negligible. Nobody was fired from government service except for a hapless subordinate, Jonathan Miller, who cashed traveler's checks, which were, in the tangled fashion of the affair, both from and for the contras.
North still wears his country's uniform and, until recently, was functioning as a kind of philosopher-statesman for the Marine Corps. Poindexter, who took it upon himself to divert the arms profits to aid the contras and regards Congress as "outside interference," was not promoted but is still on the government payroll.
In spite of the hair-raising lessons about the perils of having a military man as the president's chief foreign policy adviser, Ronald Reagan went right ahead and chose another one for the job.
Elliott Abrams, who lied to Congress about the Hasenfus plane and his role in begging contra handouts from a sultan, is still the assistant secretary for inter-American affairs -- although he is no longer received by Senate committees and was made to take the oath before the one House subcommittee before which he testified.
Attorney General Edwin Meese III still holds his high office, despite the fact that he conducted the worst investigation in the history of the art when commanded to find out what went on in the arms deal.
And Reagan? Nothing has changed outwardly for him. The report exonerates him from guilty knowledge of the diversion. And yet everything has changed. If Reagan had not sold arms to the ayatollah and the country had not learned that the president was not what he professed to be, Robert H. Bork would probably be on the Supreme Court and we would have the absolute monarchy that only a popular president can provide.
We must be grateful for the authors of the report. They have shown us that in a television age, good prose still has its uses.