An Unwieldy Body The Watergate Committee Did It Better

Posted: August 03, 1987

When the Senate Watergate committee wrapped up its public hearings in 1973, the administration of Richard Nixon lay mortally wounded, and the American public had found itself a new passel of congressional folk heroes: folksy Sam Ervin, with a face carved out of Mount Rushmore; earnest Howard Baker, quietly asking, "What did the President know and when did he know it?"; stolid Daniel Inouye.

There is, to put it mildly, little chance of that happening to the members of the joint committee on the Iran-contra affair. While Lt. Col. Oliver North faces the prospect of $20,000 speeches and a $1 million book advance, while George Shultz's indignation and Don Regan's humor won national applause, the mantle of public acclaim seems likely to elude the committee members themselves. (Paul Trible T-shirts, anyone?)

How to explain the difference in response? The answer lies in both atmospherics and substance.

To begin with, the Senate Watergate committee was composed of only seven members, ensuring that repetitious questioning and posturing would be kept to a minimum. With the Iran-contra affair, the big cheeses of both houses of Congress were determined to have a piece of the action. The result? An unwieldy committee composed of 26 members. Since the attraction of a politician to cameras equals that of a dog to a fire hydrant, the size of the committee ensured a never-ending supply of hot air.

Second, the committee members seemed almost eager to pass off most of the harder work about policy and facts to the lawyers. Now, John Nields Jr. and Arthur Lyman are both first-rate lawyers; I would want either one of them by my side if I were accused of a crime, especially if I were guilty. But they are not skilled in the political arts; moreover, they have no mandate from any voter to carry a policy debate into the public arena.

Thus, when Nields began his questioning of Oliver North as if he were a public executioner, it permitted a lone individual in a ribbon-bedecked uniform of the U.S. Marine Corps to seize the spotlight and cast the issue as something out of High Noon - the brave marshal standing up for righteousness against the town's cowardly establishment.

Contrast that to the Watergate committee, where the most enduring images are those of Chairman Ervin, who looked as if he had helped to draft the Constitution, lecturing pasty-faced White House aides about the meaning of the document.

By far the most important distinction, however, is rooted in the sharp differences between Watergate and the Iran-contra affair. Through its failure to appreciate the distinctions in its approach, the committee made sure that the worst aspects of Iranagua would be thoroughly muddled.

Watergate was about a criminal conspiracy to cover up a burglary and other crimes to protect the political hide of Richard Nixon. By no stretch of the imagination was there any legitimate national security interest at stake.

With Iran-contra, the issue is nothing but a debate over how to advance the national interest of the United States. What made the affair so outrageous was that White House aides were able to launch a major departure from our professed foreign policy without the advice or consent of key players in either Congress or the executive branch. Moreover, the policy turned out to be an abject failure. Oliver North may have looked into his mirror and seen John Wayne or James Bond, but lurking over his shoulder were the figures of Larry, Curly and Moe.

Arms to the country that had killed more than 250 of North's fellow Marines? A policy that produced more hostages? A promise to spring Shiite terrorists from a Kuwaiti prison, explained by North as a clever lie? (When Iran discovered that lie, it would have done wonders for our "strategic initiative" with Iran, wouldn't it?)

The committee, bewitched by memories of Watergate and seduced by the pleasures of righteous indignation, never managed to focus on the root issues of incompetence and of injury to the legitimate national interests of the United States. Yes, they got free time on national television and radio; yes, they got the warm, soothing feeling of making speeches to captive witnesses. But they have left the reputation of Congress in worse shape than when they began.

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