WASHINGTON — John M. Poindexter was a teen-ager, working at the movie theater in the small Midwestern town where he grew up. Someone had stolen $57 from his uncle's funeral home, and John's cousins and their friends talked endlessly of the missing money.
Then one day, under a theater seat where a young friend of one of his cousins had been sitting, John found a torn bill he recognized as part of the stolen money. Confronted with the evidence, the boy admitted the theft and pledged to pay it back. John's father and uncle told John Poindexter not to tell anyone.
He did what he was told. He kept the secret for more than 30 years, until his uncle divulged it.
Man in Charge of Secrets
For 11 months and 23 days as national security adviser to President Reagan, John Marlan Poindexter was the highest White House official known to have been involved in the clandestine diversion of Iranian arms sales profits to the Nicaraguan contras in defiance of a congressional ban. From late 1985 to late 1986, the 50-year-old rear admiral was the man in charge of the secrets.
On a stage dominated by dramatic figures--swashbuckling Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the glamorous Fawn Hall, arms merchants and Mideastern politicians worthy of the Arabian Nights--the stolid, pipe-smoking Poindexter is an opaque figure.
Who is he? What drove him and shaped his actions? Would Poindexter, whose career was marked by meticulous attention to rules, have insisted on orders from his commander in chief before directing such an operation? Or might he have followed his own lifelong ideas of loyalty? Did he shield the President--"Maybe he thought he was being, in some way, protective of me," as Reagan put it last week--while pressing ahead with what he thought Reagan wanted?
For his own part, Poindexter has steadfastly refused to discuss any aspect of the affair. And next month, when he testifies under a limited grant of immunity from prosecution before the special congressional investigating committees that begin hearings Tuesday, he is expected to concentrate on the details of his official role in the now-discredited covert operations.
To glimpse the essence of Poindexter himself, therefore, it is necessary to glean the clues offered by his earlier life--by the recollections of family, friends and associates who observed him as a boy, at the U.S. Naval Academy, at sea and, finally, at the White House.
Often in No. 2 Spot
He excelled at organization, often in the No. 2 spot. He learned judgment from the military--a tightknit world with standards and a logic of its own, a world far removed from politics or public relations.
Fastidious in Work
Order is important to Poindexter: All his life, he seems to have made strong efforts to control his environment, to minimize conflict. He is careful, fastidious in work and personal habits.
"He is the only man I have ever seen put on a pair of trousers without letting the pants touch the floor," recalls a former naval aide.
On one known occasion before joining the White House staff, he chose risk. It was an exception.
At Annapolis, Md., he once suggested that he and his roommates climb the wall surrounding the U.S. Naval Academy, buy some beer and meet some girls. For most midshipmen, that might not have seemed so daring. But Poindexter was a six-striper, a brigade commander, and he had a lot to lose if he was caught. He wasn't.
He is fair. He treats others with kindness. In his personal relations, he rarely manipulates. He doesn't double-cross. He expects the same of others.
But, as Reagan's national security adviser, he also lied to keep secrets.
At the White House, he congratulated North for deceiving a congressional committee about his work with the contras. Poindexter himself misled Congress and other Administration officials to keep the Iranian arms sales secret.
Works Best Alone
By inclination and personality, those who know him say, he prefers to be second in line rather than first. He achieves under others' names. He works best alone. He is a staff man.
But a retired vice admiral recalls a troubling conversation just before Poindexter became national security adviser in his fourth year at the White House.
"He said it was very difficult working with some of those people (at the White House) and some of the times you have to bypass people . . . " remembers retired Vice Adm. M. Staser Holcomb. "I thought it was terrible. His judgment was not the same on issues as it had been in the Navy."
As a child, propriety was important to John Poindexter.
He grew up in Odon, Ind., a solidly Protestant community of small farmers, Amish families, evangelical churchgoers and factory workers. Previous generations of Poindexters had built reputations as shrewd businessmen and leaders. Middle class in their own eyes, the Poindexters nevertheless were Odon's elite.