WASHINGTON — In the White House, John M. Poindexter had the image of a sphinx with the shoulder boards of an admiral, an enigmatic figure naturally at home in the National Security Council apparatus, beyond the clutches of the press and the eye of the public.
He was the fourth man who passed through the revolving door to become Ronald Reagan's national security adviser and, until the Iran- contra imbroglio broke out, he had been the least visible, the least controversial and, therefore, presumably the most effective.
Poindexter was the consummate staff man: If he had been in his natural spot as the post-Oliver L. North phase of the Iran-contra congressional hearings began Wednesday, he would have been a row removed from the witness table, backing up some superior officer in the spotlight.
As it was, he was the star witness and, not surprisingly, made a futile plea to have television cameras turned off.
Then, he stepped into the uncomfortable seat as the most crucial witness of the exhaustive hearings and, with characteristic blandness, answered the compelling question of the investigation: Did he tell President Reagan that proceeds from the secret arms sales to Iran had been diverted to the contras in Nicaragua?
In leading carefully up to the moment, Senate committee counsel Arthur L. Liman asked several questions before he laid the bottom-line query on the table.
Question: "And did you, at any time prior to the attorney general's finding . . . this on Nov. 22, tell the President of the United States of the fact that proceeds from the Iranian arms sale were being used to support the contras?"
Answer: " . . . I did not talk to anybody else except Col. North about this decision until, to my knowledge, my best recollection--and I don't want to quibble here over times--in late November, 1986, but my recollection is the first mention that I made to anybody besides Col. North was on Nov. 24, 1986, to (Atty. Gen.) Ed Meese."
Q. "And so that the answer is you did not tell the President of the United States?"
A. "I did not."
Whatever sparks might have erupted from that moment of high drama fizzled quietly, and Liman and Poindexter marched on through the lawyerly disassembly of Poindexter's central role in the affair.
The admiral's labored, plodding, unruffled answers, punctuated occasionally by a puff on his pipe, drained the spectacle that Lt. Col. North had electrified for six days.
He found little basis to quarrel with North's account. He would not lend support to the notion that the Marine officer had perhaps been out of his depth as the key operator of a covert foreign policy on two crucial fronts.
Corps a Cover for North
Indeed, Poindexter said, the Marine Corps was in effect a cover for North's real importance. The silver oak leaves of a lieutenant colonel bestowed some insignificance on North and diverted attention from his secret work, else he might have been made a special assistant to the President.
North, who was customarily attired in civilian clothes while working at the National Security Council, began wearing his ribbon-clad Marine uniform in appearances in court and on Capitol Hill after the scandal broke.
Whether it was intentional or not, Poindexter drew an unmistakable contrast between himself and his flamboyant subordinate. While North had appeared resplendent in his Marine Corps uniform, the admiral wore a dark civilian suit, a white shirt and conservative tie, saying: "This is not a Navy issue."
His actions as he described them in his first day on the witness stand were more the actions of a political appointee than those of the consummate military staff officer.
Unlike North, who insisted that, to the end, he had maintained fidelity to the chain of command, Poindexter declared that he had taken it on himself to protect his boss, the President, by keeping information from him.
To describe what he had done, he even borrowed Harry S. Truman's dictum: "The buck stops here."
In accepting final responsibility--which apparently only he could have passed on to the Oval Office--Poindexter told the congressional panels: "I felt it was within my authority because it was implementing a policy I understood."
A moment later, he added: "I don't believe I estimated how controversial it would be--accurately."