WASHINGTON — The congressional hearings on the Iran- contra scandal, which will begin today and stretch through the summer, could become the most gripping Washington drama since the televised hearings that turned many Americans into "Watergate junkies" 14 years ago.
"It will be nothing beyond the normal four-ring circus," said one harried committee spokesman, who estimated that he has been answering almost 200 calls a day from the news media.
Television networks are planning major commitments of air time, with the Cable News Network planning to cover the proceedings from beginning to end. Reporters representing hundreds of newspapers and magazines from around the world have reserved seats in the hearing rooms.
Little Room for Public
As a result, space for the public will be limited to a few dozen spots. Admission tickets are expected to be issued on a first-come, first-served basis.
Congressmen participating in the hearings, mindful of how Watergate turned the names of obscure lawmakers into household words almost overnight, have worked out a delicately balanced system under which even the most junior will be guaranteed an opportunity to question at least some of the most important witnesses at length under the glare of the lights.
Each witness will be questioned initially by a team of four lawmakers--a Democrat and a Republican from each house--who have become known as the "designated hitters."
Relatively Minor Roles
Unfortunately, however, not all the witnesses will be as compelling as Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the White House aide who allegedly ran the Iran arms sales and the diversion of profits to the Nicaraguan rebels, and Fawn Hall, his glamorous secretary. The hearings are guaranteed to produce countless hours of testimony by figures whose roles in the events were relatively minor.
CNN Executive Vice President Ed Turner conceded that the hearings may become "mind-numbingly boring."
For that reason, the three broadcast networks say they will be making their coverage decisions on a daily basis, weighing the potential for news against forgone advertising revenues from regular programming.
CBS, despite its well-publicized financial problems, has built a special glass booth atop a building near the Capitol that will make the Capitol dome into an eye-catching backdrop for Dan Rather as he anchors the opening of the hearings today. ABC's Peter Jennings and NBC's Tom Brokaw also will be on hand for the beginning of the hearings.
All three networks have indicated that they plan to offer extensive coverage for at least the first week, when lawmakers question retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord.
Secord, a central figure in both the sale of U.S. arms to Iran and the private network that supplied the contras, could provide the hearings with some of their most dramatic moments. He had refused to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee last December but suddenly changed his mind last week and decided to tell his story in public for the first time.
Those who miss live coverage during the daytime will be able to see the hearings replayed during prime-time hours on C-SPAN--the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network. Insomniacs can keep abreast of daily developments when CNN reruns the testimony between midnight and 3 a.m. PDT.
National Public Radio will produce half-hour nightly summaries of the day's developments to be incorporated into its "All Things Considered" program. Other radio networks plan special prime-time broadcasts on days when the witnesses make major news.
The hearings will begin in the historic Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building, an ornate chamber that was the setting for investigations into the sinking of the Titanic, the Teapot Dome scandal and Watergate.
On alternate weeks, the hearings will switch to a room in a House office building. The committees had hoped to use the room where the Judiciary Committee voted articles of impeachment against former President Richard M. Nixon, but the committee refused to abandon it. So the Iran inquiry is to be held in the hearing room of the Foreign Affairs Committee.