WASHINGTON — Tuesday's opening segment of the real-life TV and radio drama "The Iran- contra Affair" is going to be the biggest threat to daytime soap opera since Watergate, Daniel Schorr predicted at the annual Public Radio Conference here.
As a correspondent for CBS News during the Watergate hearings in 1973, Schorr personally fielded phone calls from angry "As the World Turns" viewers who demanded to know how they were going to follow the show's plot after Sen. Sam Ervin's committee hearings preempted it day after day.
"The odd thing that happened after about 10 days was that the calls protesting about our having preempted the soap operas stopped, and instead we began getting calls in rising numbers commenting on the hearings as though they were a soap opera," Schorr told a room full of broadcasters attending the conference. "At one point, there was a lawyer who was not very interesting, by intention, and calls came in protesting that they wanted that nice John Dean back."
The television and radio networks that were reluctant to give over so much air time to what they thought would be dull politics learned their lesson, according to Schorr and other NPR broadcasters, whose gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate-House hearings will be heard over most of NPR's nearly 300 affiliates. The airwaves will be packed with live broadcasts of Tuesday's hearings (see box, Page 1).
Congressional reporter Linda Westheimer predicted that the hearings, beginning with the opening testimony of retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord on Tuesday, could run through much of the summer, plodding through "ambiguity, uncertainty and implausibility."
"I (now) think it's going to be quite a lot more dramatic than I (initially) thought it was going to be. . . .," she said. "Sen. (Daniel) Inouye told us that we now know probably about half of what he knows and I asked the senator, 'What about that other half? Is it good stuff or is it just detailed, boring whatnot?' and he said, 'Unfortunately, it's good stuff.' "
Westheimer said that according to the Capitol Hill rumor mill, the second witness, former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, will be a good member of the cast to keep an eye on.
"You're going to hear a version (of events) you've never heard before," she said.
The NPR correspondents offered several armchair suggestions for their audience beyond simply cooking up plenty of popcorn.
NPR correspondent Richard Gonzales, who has been attempting to unravel the complicated finances of the Iran- contra affair, advised listeners to make out a score card with four categories of money to be accounted for: domestic fund-raising on behalf of the Nicaraguan rebels, money from the actual arms sales to Iran, foreign contributions and congressional humanitarian aid for the contras.
Added up, there are millions of dollars that went from bank account to bank account and still are unaccounted for, he said. Guesses on how it was spent run the gambit from payoffs to black-market arms dealers to helping to finance a civil war in Angola, Gonzales noted.
NPR correspondent Cokie Roberts also reminded listeners that political stars were made during the Watergate hearings and said that it will probably happen again during the Iran- contra hearings.
"Who's going to emerge?" she asked. Her suggestions:
--From the House: Rep. Richard Cheney (R-Wyo.), Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), Rep. William Broomfield (R-Mich.) and Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.).
--From the Senate: Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Watergate committee veteran and Iran committee chairman Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Warren Rudman (R-N.H.).