Cowboys and Iranians

Who could have dreamed up the Iran-contra scheme but a bunch of Texans?

Major congressional investigations of my recall usually have produced clear-cut results. Heroes and villains were identified, riddles answered, smoking guns found. The erring then were sent to the woodshed or the slammer. Those were the good old days.

Show me a hero in the Iran-contra mess, and I must challenge you for cause. Witnesses excuse their misdeeds because they are such pure-hearted, fine fellows; they repeatedly contradict each other; they develop total recall when it serves them or no recall at all when it does not, never once seeming embarrassed by memories so convenient.

As I watched this theater of the politically absurd, something about it began to seem disturbingly familiar. What came across was the sort of traditional contempt for government that one finds in Odessa beer joints, Dallas boardrooms, the Houston Petroleum Club: the notion that gummint is made up of sissy britches who too highly value restraint when a fistfight would be more fun and who permit themselves to be hog-tied by nit-picking rules. I wish I could believe it’s a coincidence that so many of the witnesses turned out to be native Texans (Oliver North and Robert McFarlane) or have Texas connections (Richard Secord); long after they should have grown up, they continued to conduct themselves as cowboys, whether wearing Marine green or Ivy League pinstripes.

The investigators weren’t much better. It must have taken generations of inbreeding to produce lawyers who don’t know what to ask witnesses. I endorse the sentiments of my old Texas pal, lawyer Warren Burnett: “I kept waiting for one lawyer to say, ‘Well, now, when the president did learn of matters he allegedly had no knowledge of, who told him and when? And did the president then piss down his leg or smile like the Mona Lisa?’ ” Members of the investigating committee exhibited such alarming deference to military titles and ribbons that they praised the patriotism and dedication of the military cowboys before risking even the most timid questions.

Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North took the congressionals like Sam Houston took Santa Anna. His macho swagger, defiant lectures, little-boy grins, and talent for wrapping himself in the flag have made him the biggest military folk hero since General Douglas MacArthur was canonized in 1951 for having defied President Truman. The committee members withered and shrank in the presence of the new hero like so many wienies roasted in a campfire.

A curious hero, he who has (1) repeatedly lied to Congress, the State Department, Department of Justice investigators, and who knows who else — all the while saying how deeply he loves the truth; (2) been contradicted by his superiors on his claims that he didn’t do a thing — “not one” — without the approval of those superiors; (3) publicly accused two U.S. senators of leaking sensitive military information, which, it developed, Colonel North himself had leaked to Newsweek; and (4) had the gall to lecture congressmen against “meddling” in the conduct of foreign affairs (which only happens to be one of their constitutional responsibilities), even as his own admissions offered the best possible evidence that congressional constraints are not only necessary but wise.

Still, the San Antonio-born Marine got away with it. Ollie North knew that what congressmen thought of him wasn’t important compared with what the public out there in Televisionland perceived; he also knew that if he won the public, most of the congressionals would roll over and play dead. And he was right.

President Reagan knew nothing of all that reckless cowboying going on right under his nose. We have his word on that. What little the president might possibly have known he can’t remember: such as the letter he signed authorizing arms-for-hostages (which, golly gee, our president was so very much against) and which Admiral Poindexter ripped up on learning the Department of Justice would conduct his investigation.

Admiral Poindexter knew this, you see, because attorney general Edwin Meese accommodatingly called him one afternoon to say something like “Admiral, sir, this is to inform you my investigators will be checking your office and Colonel North’s office tomorrow morning to see if we can find any nasty incriminating old documents, as the president aches in his bones to get to the bottom of this terrible mess.” The admiral said that tomorrow morning would be fine and dandy, thanks, whereupon he and Ollie sprinted for the burn bags and the paper shredders. Even as the Meese men thumbed through the records, Ollie periodically excused himself to feed his paper shredder.

Another “hero” was former general Richard Secord, Ollie North’s privateering friend who ran arms to the contras. Secord spent three years in Texas as an Air Force instructor during the fifties — plenty long enough, apparently, to pick up the natives’ values. Secord claimed to have worked only for the love of liberty, though he has salted away $8 million in Swiss banks from marked-up arms profits and has refused congressional demands that the money be handed over to the U.S. Treasury. Instead, with the finesse of a Fort Worth used-car salesman, Secord suggested that the money be handed over to the contras through a fund honoring William Casey. Yippee-ki-yii-yay.

The only man, apparently, to give a moment’s thought to prudence, caution, and the requirements of the law or to feel the slightest qualms about what he has done is yet another Texan — from Graham — one Robert F. McFarlane, who ran the National Security Council before Admiral Poindexter. McFarlane’s musings on the NSC’s cowboying were too little and too late, and he seemed to respect Congress only a little more than he might a horny toad, but he at least cautioned Ollie North and others not to unlawfully solicit contra funds. They ruint ol’ Bob up yonder, teachin’ him to have second thoughts.

Who, then, gave Two-Gun Ollie and his cowboys the authority to ride down Main Street and shoot up the town? Well, the cowboys said, their true wagon master was the

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