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Iran-Contra Hearings: A Behind-the-Scenes Report : Gallery Spectators and Bit Players Relish Their Roles in Historic Drama as It Unfolds Daily on Capitol Hill

May 29, 1987|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A pair of pink-clad high school history teachers from Ossining, N.Y., stood in line with the hundreds of tourists who wait every day to get into the Iran- contra hearings.

Finally Lauren Carminucci and Mirla Morrison were led into the Senate caucus room--the same place where the sinking of the Titanic, the Teapot Dome scandal, the McCarthy communism hearings, the Kefauver expose of organized crime and the Watergate investigation all made history.

"I sat down and said to Mirla, 'This is the most exciting thing I have ever done in my life,' " Carminucci said, seated in the very rear of the room where, with a little stretching, she could see the presiding senators and the backs of witnesses' heads.

The hearings are exciting, all right. Part of the excitement is trying to figure out exactly what the witnesses, the lawyers and the members of Congress are talking about.

Just who are Mooey and T. C.?

Answer: Mooey and T. C. are the same person (Robert Owen), and he is the one who testified about flying to a clandestine meeting at a Chinese grocery store.

Of course! But is Mooey from Country Two?

What is Country Two?

Answer: Saudi Arabia.

Spectators run the gamut from groups of high school students to an older man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a lei to actors Kirk Douglas and Lloyd Bridges. Douglas and Bridges apparently bypassed the public lines: Douglas walked in with columnist Tom Braden and Bridges was escorted by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), thus avoiding what Bridges might have called "Seat Hunt." For such public observers, the code names for people and countries, as well as the odd revelations, poems and famous quotations help break up the tedium of long, complicated testimony.

People who attend or work at the hearings almost universally admit to a unique thrill of being a part of an important event. Even the stenographers feel they are "a small but essential part of history," said Dennis Dinkel, who, along with his partner, Daniel Dotson, chain smoke away their exhaustion the moment the hearings adjourn. Said Dotson, "Your friends call and say they saw you on television."

Like almost everybody else, Dinkel and Dotson have a favorite witness. They liked former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane.

"We like the one who talked the slowest," Dinkel said.

"I don't know if the hearings are heating up or cooling down," said Brent Groce, a graduate student in international business at the University of South Carolina, who waited in line 1 1/2 hours to watch the standard 30 minutes of testimony before being ushered out so the next group of 25 spectators could be admitted.

Rosemary Ledwidge of Birmingham, Mich., waited in line for one hour and 40 minutes before she got in, only to have the hearings adjourn 10 minutes later.

"That was short," she said on her way out, admitting that she did not hear anything particularly interesting. "But it's better than nothing. It's historic. I was a political-science major in college and this is the type of thing I enjoy."

What did Lt. Col. Oliver North (referred to in testimony as B. G., for Blood and Guts) buy at the Parklane Hosiery store on July 20, 1985, with a $20 travelers' check given to him by contra leader Adolfo Calero?

"We have stockings, leotards, tights and some ballet shoes," a spokesperson for Parklane Hosiery said, asking not to be named. Camera crews and reporters flocked to the Parklane Hosiery store nearest to North's home after the purchase was revealed on a huge chart that showed he cashed other travelers' checks from Calero at food stores and gas stations.

Nobody with Parklane Hosiery knew anything about what a man named Blood and Guts might have bought there . Parklane Hosiery does not sell weapons, the spokesperson said, "not unless you wanted to strangle somebody with panty hose. For that I guess he would want our 'Sheer and Silky' hose 009 with Lycra."

The check spent at Parklane Hosiery was one of more than 100 given to North by Calero, also known as Sparkplug.

"I was surprised," Calero testified under oath, "to learn my name was Sparkplug. I've always thought of myself as calm."

The hearings provide senators and congressmen on the investigating committee with a golden opportunity to gain national recognition, the way Harry Truman did during the investigation of the Pearl Harbor attack and Howard Baker did during Watergate. Already Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), who has successfully cultivated a low profile during his 23 years in Congress, has received "thousands of post cards from all over the country," now that he is co-chairing the investigating committee, said Hamilton's press secretary, Jerry Cacciotti.

The other co-chairman, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), has been deluged with mail, too. During the Watergate hearings, Inouye was a junior senator and seated at the end of the table, where the glare of television lights permanently damaged the retina of his left eye.

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