WASHINGTON — Despite the steam of a Washington summer, Lawrence E. Walsh shows not a wrinkle in his pin-collar shirt, dark tie and three-piece charcoal suit. He seems unchanged by the years. He still has the look of the highly successful 55-year-old Wall Street lawyer he was--23 years ago. Although facing imminent, crucial decisions as independent counsel prosecuting the Iran-Contra crimes, he talks of them with the tone and distance of a keen observer rather than a central participant.
The "backbone of steel" that one longtime colleague says runs through Walsh's frame is covered by old-style courtliness, geniality and precision in responding to questions. Only occasionally does the hard core surface, as when Walsh explains why he won't throw in the towel, despite receding public interest in the scandal that rocked the Reagan Administration, increased congressional criticism and a highly critical reversal on July 20 of former White House aide Oliver L. North's conviction by a 2-1 vote of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here.
That reversal represented a setback as dramatic as the milestone of the April conviction on all counts of North's former superior, John M. Poindexter, President Reagan's national security adviser. At this stage, Walsh won't say whether and how he will appeal that ruling. But most legal observers believe he wants to go directly to the Supreme Court to prevent immunity granted during congressional hearings from giving witnesses a free pass from any future prosecution for their acts.
Walsh's steel was tempered during the Great Depression when, fresh out of law school, he joined a state special prosecutor's staff probing corruption among Brooklyn prosecutors. Then came more racket-busting and gangster-chasing as an assistant district attorney under the newly elected New York district attorney, Thomas E. Dewey. Later, he served Gov. Dewey as chief counsel in Albany and was the first director of the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor.
A lifelong Republican, Walsh was named a federal judge by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but stepped down after three years to become deputy attorney general under his colleague on the Dewey prosecution team, Atty. Gen. William P. Rogers. Then came the blue-chip private law practice in Manhattan for 20 years--and six-figure annual income--though he found time to serve as chairman of the American Bar Assn.'s judge evaluation panel and as ABA president.
In 1981, he left New York for Oklahoma City, his wife's hometown. But he still handled cases coming from the East. He is now past the 3 1/2-year mark as independent counsel--a job Walsh had thought would take two years--and there is no end in sight. But he seems vitalized by the need to establish principle.
Question: Rep. William S. Broomfield (R-Mich.), a member of the former Iran-Contra Committee, has called for you to fold up the tent and end the investigation. Are you considering that?
Answer: It's sort of an overhanging consideration and has been for some time. The alternatives are . . . to leave matters, not to conclude it; or to refer matters to the Department of Justice; or to have a new independent counsel take over these matters. Balancing these alternatives, we have concluded that the matters that we're now working on are best handled by our continuation. If we tried to give them to someone else, there would be a substantial waste of accumulated education. And, second, they are still subject to the same sensitivity and potential appearance of conflict of interest that caused the original referral to this office. So although just about all of us would like to go to something else, we haven't reached a point where we think we can do that with responsibility.
Q: Critics have said the effort here is really a left-right contest: What's being re - fought here is the dispute over aid to the Nicaraguan rebels. How do you respond?
A: I don't think there's a left-right aspect to it. We think that our work, in addition to dealing with crime generally, has a particular importance because of its effect in preserving the checks and balances which the Constitution provides for and which are unique and essential to our form of government. It simply comes down to establishing illegal or criminal deception of Congress. That's the central concern. That isn't a left or right thing. It wouldn't make any difference which party was in control of which branch. The two branches are a check upon each other, and all we're interested in is establishing the precedent that false statements will not go unprosecuted.
Q: Should a precedent as important as that be established through the mechanism of an independent counsel rather than the regular prosecutive arm of government?