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CONGRESSIONAL SOAP OPERA : True-Life Secrets of a Print Journalist Hooked on TV Hearings

May 31, 1987|KAY MILLS | Mills is a Times editorial page staff writer who is on leave of absence. and

Confession may be good for the soul but probably not for loyalty to one's profession. Nonetheless, here goes: I, a print journalist, a former Washington reporter, find myself hooked by the televised Iran- contra hearings in a way I was never hooked when the stories were printed in black and white on the front pages of the nation's newspapers.

Why are we jaded newspaper readers, already carrying within our souls the ghosts of hearings past, watching yet another set of hearings? For all their metronomic quality, the hearings to date bring the story home. This is live drama. Occasionally there's even a little wry comedy. The cast members have not all shown up yet, and they're appearing in a show for which the script is still being written. Even when a bit player is on the screen, you dare not leave the room. Who knew Alexander Butterfield, and he's the guy during the Watergate hearings who let slip that the Oval Office was bugged? Who knew Robert W. Owen, and he nailed Ollie North to money and maps for the contras?

For all the grayness of questioners and answerers, the story now has a focus. It boils down to real people making real decisions. Real decisions, it seems abundantly clear, that they thought they knew how to conduct the sensitive business of government without the guidance of the constitutionally ordained body that is supposed to make laws--that is, the Congress. Real decisions on how much to tell. Sometimes you can see the wheels still turning between question and answer. On TV, you can judge these guys for yourself.

Television, too, is showing how infinitely more complex is the question of how foreign policy is made and executed than the plain and simple Watergate probing into whether the President was a crook. Watergate, too, was a question of officials perceiving themselves above the law, but it was more a whodunit than a textbook in the way government really works, as Dan Rather aptly described the current hearings. Not even famous Freddy Silverman could have programmed as good a way to observe the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.

To try to regain a little ground with my colleagues in The Times' Washington bureau who've been reporting this story, I should note that the business of governing is so dull that television doesn't usually cover it as well as the print medium does. Not, at least, until TV gets a format like a hearing where lawyers and legislators can record all the boring memos, directives and findings and play them back in the form of questions and answers.

The business of governing is usually so dull that without the print press poring over endless documents, pursuing the thread that might unravel a cover-up, trying to write the story in an intelligent context, no one--and especially not television--might have maintained the interest and momentum needed to bring these hearings before the public.

The Q&A format compresses the story into one the little box can accommodate. From "Perry Mason" to "L.A. Law," TV viewers have long been partial to interrogations. This one is real, however: This is "U.S. Law."

Watch the lawyers try to slip the noose a little tighter, get a little closer to the locus of responsibility. And remember that Perry Mason, with his dramatic courtroom revelations, had nothing on Sen. Daniel Inouye's disclosure that investigators had found the missing $10 million given by the Sultan of Brunei to the contras.

Television shows us also how much this crowd differs from the burglars and buggers and fixers of Watergate years. So far, the longest-running witnesses have been two patriotic, earnest and, yes, very careful men. One could be your next-door neighbor, but retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord was doing the most clandestine of work and his veracity is in some question. The other, grayer than six months ago, faced the camera with eyes not quite masking the inner turmoil that led him to try to kill himself. No casting director could invent Robert McFarlane. These are smoother, blander characters than the Watergate crowd, but no less absorbing and no less slippery.

No question the questioners are different. Gone are the soaring eyebrows and Shakespearean quotations of Sam Ervin. Gone is the cadenced outrage of Barbara Jordan or the betrayed voices of men who backed Nixon until even they no longer could do so. This time, the pace is so measured that Sgt. Joe Friday would be right at home.

Television understands America's changing demographics better than Congress. If Bill Cosby or "Cagney & Lacey" creator Barbara Corday had cast this show, the committee would have done better than one black and one Asian face and no women. Tyne Daly, Sharon Gless and their working-women pals cut no ice here.

Californians can catch some of the morning sessions as they drink their coffee before hitting the freeway. I'm home writing a book about women in the newspaper business, and--this is for my boss--I'm doing it. I'd been so good resisting the soap operas and the cable-TV movies. But I've finally succumbed. After all, this is truly "As the World Turns" and "Witness for the Prosecution" all rolled into one.

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