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A Verdict From Maine : MEN OF ZEAL A Candid Inside Story of the Iran-Contra Hearings by Senators William S. Cohen and George J. Mitchell (Viking Press: $19.95; 350 pp.; 0-670-82252-3)

September 04, 1988|Larry Bensky | Bensky is national affairs correspondent for Pacifica radio. He won a George Polk award for his reporting of the Iran-Contra hearings. and

Attentive followers of last summer's Iran-Contra hearings probably noticed, with surprise, that only one state, Maine, had both of its senators chosen for the 26-member joint House-Senate panel.

Since there are 535 members of Congress, the odds against such a choice were indeed long. But the party leaders' wisdom in selecting both Democratic Sen. George J. Mitchell, a former Federal judge and United States attorney, and Republican Sen. William S. Cohen, the ranking minority member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was evident as the hearings progressed.

As most of the witnesses, and their putative interrogators, bogged down in vapid posturing and evasive non-answers, Mitchell and Cohen were among the few panel members to cut, consistently, through the persiflage with germane questions and observations.

Now, Maine's participants in Congress' most recent, visible mass exposure have co-written a book about what they did instead of taking a 1987 summer vacation.

Proceeding, as did the hearings themselves, from the inquiry's formative stages, and then chronologically, witness by witness, from May through August, "Men of Zeal" gives us a chapter-by-chapter reflection on what the authors believe went wrong--and right--during the Iran-Contra hearings.

Inevitably, some chapters are more insightful than others. Especially valuable--although not especially original--are Mitchell and Cohen's ruminations on Oliver North. As have others, Cohen and Mitchell ascribe North's at least momentary success to a combination of their committee's timidity and ineptitude in arranging the terms of his appearance, and the determining presence of television.

"With Oliver North," they write, "television had a torrid love affair."

With others, mostly the committee and its attorneys, television was less enamored. Cohen and Mitchell deplore the fact, for example, that "the medium obscured the message" when Gen. Richard Secord exposed the twists and turns of his profiteering patriotism. The committee and its attorneys, they believe, were not given fair treatment by a medium which is "better suited to simplifying and summarizing complex issues than to displaying in microscopic detail the origins and transformations of secret bank accounts."

It was, however, Congress' job to "display" such "microscopic details" in a coherent, contextual fashion, and allow the public to make an informed judgment about them. In this, they can be said to have failed, though Cohen and Mitchell don't seem to be quite sure why, other than failing to make the proceedings sufficiently telegenic.

The problem here probably lies in the book's subtitled premise. While one hardly expects a "candid inside story" co-written by two United States senators to be the kind of thing that rivals the literature available at supermarket check-out lines, one is entitled to expect a bit more bite and tear than the authors of "Men of Zeal" provide.

They seem too genteel to criticize--or analyze--their colleagues by name. At the same time, they give the impression of losing themselves in the same personae that they exhibited during the hearings: Cohen, the existential intellectual, enamored of word games and power conundrums. And Mitchell, the frustrated jurist, impatient with the poor evidentiary and testimonial guidelines in a loosely organized Congressional hearing.

In person, these are minor, even valuable quirks. In print, they tend to mean, in "Men of Zeal," a lack of focus on what one has a right to expect: clues to answers, if not answers themselves.

After reading this book, one is no closer to understanding such crucial, outstanding issues as: Was there a further development of the Casey-North-Poindexter "stand alone, off-the-shelf, self-sustaining entity" in other regions of the world?

What was really going on in Vice President Bush's office during this whole affair? Political reporters have concentrated on this aspect of the book, but the subject is in fact treated very superficially in "Men of Zeal," as it was during the hearings. By raising the Bush question, Cohen and Mitchell only emphasize that it remains unanswered.

Finally, is there any hope that Congress can play a more constructive role in limiting the murderous abuses of U.S. power abroad which were, at least partially, exposed by the Iran-Contra hearings?

That an otherwise sensible, sensitive pair of legislators like Cohen and Mitchell can skate so lightly across such subject matter, with so few remedies proposed, most of them legalistic and procedural, is a disappointment.

Although perhaps all it proves is that being "inside" and "candid" are not roles that United States senators can play side by side, even if they are from the same state.

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