Rep. Dick Cheney, chairman of the House Republican Conference and the intellectual leader of the know-nothings who gave us the minority report on the Iran-contra scandal, says the flap over it is "a one-day wonder" that will not be around in the presidential campaign.
He wishes. The report is already an issue in New Hampshire, where the first primary will be held.
That is because Sen. Warren B. Rudman, Sen. Robert J. Dole's most influential Granite State backer, and a lead questioner on the Iran-contra committee, jumped on the work of Cheney and company and called it "pathetic."
Rep. Jack Kemp, who is sinking in the polls, pounced on Dole and demanded he take a stand. The authors of the minority report called the generally admired majority account -- which was signed by 15 Democrats and two other Republican senators, William S. Cohen of Maine and Paul S. Trible Jr. of Virginia -- "hysterical."
Cheney knows better, but he is running for higher office. He wishes to succeed Robert H. Michel as House minority leader. His constituency consists mostly of people of the "hysterical" persuasion. The moderate wing, of which he was once considered a member, has dwindled in the Reagan years to perhaps a dozen. Extremism is high chic in the House.
For Dole, the majority report that Rudman so vigorously defends represents opportunity and danger.
The Manchester Union-Leader, the savagely right-wing daily that has the widest circulation in the state, pounded on Rudman all summer for displaying an unseemly interest in the facts and insufficient compassion for faithful Reagan underlings, who were doing the president's bidding although allegedly without his knowledge. Now that Rudman, who was praised by other papers, has become the most popular Republican in the state, the paper has gone into a Rumpelstiltskin-strength rage. In a front-page editorial, it has called on Dole to denounce Rudman.
So far, all Dole has said, somewhat sulkily on a CNN-TV broadcast, is that he is "not responsible for what Sen. Rudman says."
All Republican presidential candidates, save Kemp, who is trying to prove himself more loyal to the president than Nancy Reagan, hate to make the choice between "hysterical" and "pathetic."
The usually voluble Alexander M. Haig Jr. has no comment. Pierre (Pete) du Pont notes that "no voter in New Hampshire or Iowa has raised the question." Pat Robertson is unreachable. George Bush's campaign spokesman, Pete Teeley, says the vice president feels that there is "nothing new in the report," that changes have been made in the National Security Council and that the recommended establishment of a joint committee "would result in better cooperation between the CIA and Congress."
It is difficult for Dole because the majority report represents a major opportunity to shred Bush's claims of being "the copilot of the Reagan administration." Bush's defense is that he did not know what was going on. The majority report puts him at a meeting on the Iranian arms sale, which he denies attending.
Dole can fault Bush for not opposing a move that even Cheney concedes was a mistake.
But if he goes for the "hysterical" report, he has to buy into the criticism of Reagan. The right wing freely criticizes the president, and even embarrasses him -- as, recently, by threatening to walk out on a Gorbachev speech to a joint meeting of Congress. But no one else is allowed to, particularly a candidate to succeed him.
The whole situation underlines Dole's maddening dilemma. If he takes rational positions that would help him win a general election, he diminishes his chances to win the nomination, which will be decided by the implacables of the stripe that wrote the minority report.
The Republican hope that Iran-contra will not be an issue is as unrealistic as the minority version of it. If all goes according to plan, Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh will shortly be returning indictments, an action that will dent the minority protest that no crimes were committed. In due course, we almost surely can expect presidential pardons for Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter and Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.
The president refuses to discuss the matter. Cheney dismissed any talk of them as "premature." But you can be sure the Democrats will raise the question. Cheney, as Gerald Ford's White House chief of staff, learned about the radioactive quality of pardons when Ford granted one to Richard Nixon.
"Hysterical" and "pathetic" could be with us a long time. Just because Reagan is packing it in doesn't mean that the scandal fades from the national screen.