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May 17, 1987|Michael Wines

THE CHRONOLOGY: THE DOCUMENTED DAY-BY-DAY ACCOUNT OF THE SECRET MILITARY ASSISTANCE TO IRAN AND THE CONTRAS by The National Security Archive, Scott Armstrong, executive director (Warner: $6.50; 678 pp.). Some paperbacks are written for vacations. Others are consumed in voracious bedtime sessions. Not so "The Chronology." It's a passionless product of technology, a mix of PC-equipped researchers and a publisher who can spot a marketing phenomenon at 20 miles. Here the National Security Archive, a brainchild of Watergate-era sleuths, has computer-organized every nit unearthed on the Iran- contra affair, from Nov. 4, 1979 (U.S. hostages seized) to April 8 (latest on the Sultan of Brunei).

This is a boon to reporters, and not all bad for the rest of us. Anyone who ever wallowed in Watergate or got immersed in Iran will enjoy "The Chronology." Its pretensions to historical accuracy aside, you don't read this book, you browse it for bits of scandal, of which it has plenty. That is its attraction, and it is worth the price. Its drawback is that too many bits are irrelevant or inaccurate, the result of reporters stampeding into print too fast. Thus the final entry proclaims that the sultan's lost $10-million gift to the contras went to bribe Hondurans, when the truth is funnier: Someone reversed two digits in a crucial Swiss account number, and the cash vanished into thin Alpine air. One cannot blame the Archive; they've merely repackaged the news. But enough misinformation lurks here--including (gulp) one or two boners by this newspaper--to merit a caution. This book, and the reporters cited in it, are far too often wrong. As if you didn't know.

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