‘The buck stops here’

MARCI McDONALD July 27 1987

‘The buck stops here’

MARCI McDONALD July 27 1987

‘The buck stops here’


He had purposely left the glamor of his white admiral’s tunic and decorations at home because, as he put it, “this issue is not a navy issue.” Instead, Rear Admiral John Poindexter sported a nondescript blue suit. And, despite coaching from his lawyers, his voice was bland and emotionless. With his trifocals glinting in the television lights and his professorial pipe sending up wreaths of smoke over the Capitol Hill caucus room, the former national security adviser made no attempt to conceal his distaste for the public spotlight’s glare.

As he testified before the joint congressional committee on the Iran-contra affair last weekbilled as the critical remaining witness —Poindexter made a startling contrast to the electrifying presence of his onetime aide, Lt.-Col. Oliver North, who only days before had captured the popular imagination.

But despite his lack of dramatics, Poindexter provided an equally compelling television spectacle. He was the ultimate military staff man who defined his duty—“It’s always the responsibility of a staff to protect their leader” —and then promptly sacrificed his own career in carrying it out. Within hours of being sworn in, Poindexter took full personal responsibility for the diversion of profits from Iranian arms sales to help the Nicaraguan rebels known as contras. He had not told President Ronald Reagan about approving the plan—although he said that he was convinced that Reagan would regard it as a good idea— because if word of it ever leaked out, he wanted to protect the President from “political embarrassment.” Said Poindexter: “The buck stops here with me.”

Poindexter’s long-awaited testimony brought initial elation at the White House, where Reagan himself was tuned in to his performance. “I have said that for seven months,” the President told reporters at an Oval Office photo session. The admiral

brought relief even to many of Reagan’s congressional foes who had no wish to plunge the nation into the trauma of a bitter impeachment process. Said Democratic Senator Howell Heflin from Alabama: “We never

wanted to cripple the President.”

But as it became clear that Poindexter’s testimony had raised as many troubling questions about Reagan as it had put to rest, the White House moved swiftly to separate itself from the admiral. Reagan denied Poindexter’s assertion that he had signed a Dec. 5, 1985, intelligence “finding,” which approved a direct arms-for-hostages trade with Iran—and which would have contradicted Reagan’s repeated protests that he had not pursued such a policy. That testimony once again called Reagan’s credibility into question. And, according to an

ABC -Washington Post poll last week, only four per cent more people said that they felt the President was telling the truth than the 30 per cent who said that they believed him two weeks ago. Said William Schneider of the Washington-based American Enterprise In-

stitute: “In the eyes of the American public, President Reagan has been irreparably damaged.”

Indeed, to most observers, Poindexter’s attempts to protect the President may have ultimately brought him greater harm. He left the picture of a White House where subordinates were so sure of what their strong-willed chief wanted done that they took key foreign policy decisions out of his hands. Said Maine Republican Senator William Cohen: “When the buck stops, it’s supposed to stop at the top—not at a subordinate level.” Historian Arthur Schlesinger pointed out that by depriving the President of a chance to make presidential decisions, the admiral “subverted the whole process of accountability—and therefore of democracy.”

In fact, Poindexter confirmed the impression left by North of an administration distrustful of democratic processes. He admitted going out of his way to conceal two pivotal foreign policy decisions from Congress and the public, even personally ripping up an incriminating document when the scandal broke last fall. Said Maryland Democratic Senator Paul Sarbanes: “This is an incredible way for a great power to be conducting its affairs.”

The evidence of such a blatant distortion of the American political system of checks and balances was all the more embarrassing coming as it did on the very week Congress was celebrating the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. As congressmen took a half-day break from the hearings to board a chartered train for a bicentennial salute in Philadelphia, the White House hastened to put out the word that Reagan felt “betrayed” by Poindexter’s actions.

Said presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater: “Any time the President is not involved in making decisions that are presidential, he is done a disservice.”

Equally harmful to the President’s reputation was the revelation of a secret contingency plan North had worked on at the National Security Council in case of a national emergency. The draft executive order provided for a suspension of the constitution and martial law not only in the event of nuclear war or a national disaster, but also if there were “national opposition to a U.S. military invasion abroad.” The draft made no mention of Nicaragua. But, according to a report in the liberal Village Voice, North worked on the plan with the same people Reagan had used to conduct three secret martial law war games when he was governor of California between 1968 and 1972.

Concern for the constitution had been the theme of the congres-

sional panel as it concluded its questioning of North earlier in the week. Turning the tables on his lengthy dissertations about patriotism to the TV cameras, committee members addressed their own rebuttals over North’s head to the American public. With a patient schoolmaster’s air, House committee chairman Lee Hamilton delivered a stinging rebuke to North for repeatedly lying to Congress on the grounds that it could not be trusted. Said Hamilton: “A great power cannot base its policy on an untruth without a loss of credibility. I do not see how your attitude can be reconciled with the Constitution of the United States.”

But North’s on-camera proselytizing for the contras appeared to have won over a significant segment of the public. According to last week’s ABC-JÛas/iington Post poll, a stunning 43 per cent of those asked favored aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, compared with 29 per cent on June 1. Word of the poll results caused alarm in Managua, where the Sandinistas were preparing to celebrate the eighth anniversary of their revolution this week. But buoyed by North’s public relations success, the White House announced a new campaign to increase a current budget request for the contras to $180 million from $135 million and extend aid into the next president’s term of office. Said House majority leader Democratic Representative Thomas Foley: “Nobody could have afforded this kind of free publicity.”

But North’s credibil-

ity was tarnished when his former boss and mentor, Robert McFarlane, followed him to the witness table. McFarlane denied authorizing some of North’s actions. In fact, after watching North implicate members of the administration once he learned that he was facing a criminal investigation, members of the White House staff had been visibly nervous that Poindexter might do the same. The admiral’s lawyer had opened the hearing by asking that TV cameras be turned off because the admiral had just learned that he was the target of criminal charges by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh. But, said one White House official later with evident relief, “Poindexter is perhaps a little less susceptible than North to the temptations of covering his backside.” Still, despite Poindexter’s apparent sincerity, not everyone believed the man who claimed to have a photographic memory but who repeatedly said that his recollections were “fuzzy.” As Senate committee counsel Arthur Liman pointed out, Poindexter had “created a situation where it would be only your word to corroborate that of your commander-in-chief.” The ABC1 Washington Post poll showed that 68 per cent of those asked still felt that he was withholding information. Agreed Representative Louis Stokes, a Democrat from Ohio: “I cannot believe . . . that a man of [Admiral Poindexter’s] intellect and management skills would abrogate unto himself the responsibility of making a monumental decision affecting the President.”

Indeed, in the hearing’s final weeks, few observers expected new revelations. Said Stephen Hess of the Washingtonbased Brookings Institution: “Now we can all get back to As the World Turns.” But the doubts raised about Poindexter’s—and by extension, the President’s—credibility underlined the extent to which Reagan had been weakened. In a front-page analysis last week, the Los Angeles Times observed that Reagan was “finally showing his age” and had “become a shadow of the vibrant political powerhouse of the early 1980s.” Indeed, while Poindexter’s testimony confirmed Reagan’s protestations of ignorance, many observers were calling the waning of the President’s influence a national embarrassment.

—MARCI McDONALD in Washington