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Meese Amid The Soaps--a Surprise Plotboiler

November 27, 1986|TOM SHALES | Washington Post TV Critic

WASHINGTON — Some of us are still black and blue from pinching ourselves to make sure it wasn't, like last season's episodes of "Dallas," all a dream.

There amid the daytime soaps was the attorney general of the United States, Edwin Meese, telling the viewing nation and the assembled press corps (all, it would seem, equally incredulous) that money from secret U.S. arms sales to Iran had covertly gone to the contras in Nicaragua.

Meese was introduced at the briefing by President Reagan; it was as if Johnny had said "Heeeeere's Ed" and then let the sidekick do the monologue. The reporters seemed restless and a little testy at first, like they did at last week's roughhouse presidential press conference, but then settled down into rapt attention, in the manner of kids hearing a whopping good horror tale around a campfire.

This was not only stranger than fiction, this was more amazing than "Amazing Stories." The word bizarre was used time after time by newscasters. It seemed the Reagan Administration was intent on out-Doonesburying "Doonesbury."

"It's turning into a bad Hollywood movie," one network news executive moaned. "You know--one of those potboilers where they try to get too much into the same script and pretty soon the story is going 14 different ways at once."

"It was a bolt out of the blue," said Chris Wallace, NBC News White House correspondent, soon after the briefing. "If anybody says they knew it was coming, it's probably hindsight." Word had circulated that the resignation of National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter was imminent, but as viewers could see, the revelation of funds to the contras was a colossal surprise.

The bombshell du jour.

Big questions hovered in the air and on the airwaves. What did the President know and when did he know it? What didn't the President know and why should anybody be surprised that he didn't know it? What didn't the public know and would the networks be able to scramble it all together in time for the evening news?

One network, CNN, didn't have to wait until the evening news since it airs news all day. CNN went live, for instance, with House Majority Leader Jim Wright immediately after the Meese performance. Wright was followed by an afternoon full of Washington figures reacting to the story, plus file footage of those who had been fingered as culprits.

It wasn't just great "talking heads" television, it was great toppling heads television.

For all the networks, rounding up the usual suspects on this story wasn't going to be easy, at least not on the day it broke. "The White House is putting nobody out there," Wallace moaned. "Operation Candor has ended."

Each network had its own angles and perspectives. ABC anchor Peter Jennings opened his mail the day of the briefing and found a note of appreciation about the "Person of the Week" feature that aired Nov. 14 on "World News Tonight." The person of that week was Lt. Col. Oliver North, National Security Council member whose firing was announced by Reagan. The note to Jennings was from North's sister.

At all three networks, schedules were changed and additional manpower enlisted to cover the story. Everyone was caught by surprise.

"It was a stunning revelation," said Bill Lord, "World News Tonight" executive producer. "No one, no one, had the slightest hint. Clearly this was a hot potato the Administration didn't want leaking out. It could have precipitated a huge crisis of confidence if we had reported it first."

Timothy Russert, vice president of NBC News, marveled at the fact the story had been successfully kept under wraps. "For the Justice Department to have carried on a 36-hour investigation, with the entire press corps following this story, and not let it out is certainly a credit to them," Russert said.

Of course, for every question the Meese briefing answered, several more were raised. "When the government tells you they're telling the whole story, you get very suspicious," said ABC's Lord.

The Meese briefing was a contrast to President Reagan's press conference five days earlier; Reagan imparted vague impressions, Meese gave facts. In the Reagan age, we should perhaps think of presidential press conferences as transmitters of feelings and all other press conferences as transmitters of information. What the Great Communicator probably communicates best is how the Great Communicator feels.

These days he is doubtless feeling lousy.

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