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 late William Casey, the director of the CIA; Ol’ Bill masterminded things, yessir. Two things are wrong with that answer: (1) Bill Casey, safely dead, cannot be questioned and (2) no law authorized him to establish his own foreign policy or operate covert schemes unknown to Congress. If indeed Casey was “the source of authority,” then the cowboys operated without legal authority at all.

But — as the cowboys might say — the hell with where authorization came from or whether it even existed; down in Texas we look at results. All right, let’s consider the results the cowboys attained and the consequences of their acts:

Only one hostage was recovered, at the expense of exposing as pure hogwash the Reagan administration’s claim that it would “never deal with terrorists.” The fear that dealing would only encourage terrorism has been sadly affirmed: More Americans are now held hostage than when the arms-for-hostages deal began. Relations with Iran are worse, not better. Our allies Saudi Arabia and Israel have been embarrassed by revelations of their roles in the mess.

The administration, from the top down, is a wreck. Opinion polls now reveal that the president, whom the cowboys sought to protect, is widely perceived to be lying about what he knows and when he knew it. The Department of Justice, already suspect in many areas, is further weakened by Meese’s halfhearted investigation, and the CIA, slowly recovering from old Watergate batterings and the shake-ups of the Carter years, is back in the soup. The contras didn’t fare much better. Only a trickle of the money raised by the cowboys ever reached them.

The cowboys exit laughing to the cheers of the masses, having revived the contra cause. Already President Reagan is demanding more contra money from Congress; if the whole of Congress spooks and turns tail, as did the investigating committee, he may get it. That would seem to complete the stampede. The cowboys are riding so tall that Pat Buchanan and others of the nut-boy right are demanding that the colonel, the admiral, and perhaps even the general be pardoned just in case they happened to have knocked over a lawful fence or two.

Not for nothing did President Dwight D. Eisenhower warn us, upon leaving office almost three decades ago, to be on guard against the “military industrial complex.” But was anyone listening? Military cowboys, after publicly thumbing their noses at civilian authority, whom the Constitution says should be in charge, have ridden off with a whoop and clatter and to cheers. We have witnessed indeed a bloodless military coup. Military coups have heretofore been the solution of banana republics, not Constitutional republics. That seems a high price for Americans to pay for somebody else’s revolution. And wouldn’t you know it would be a bunch of wild, wacky Texas cowboys who exacted that price?