Moyers' examination of Iran-contra is more preachy than illuminating


November 27, 1990|By Michael Hill

That Bill Moyers once trained to be a Southern Baptist minister is evident in tonight's ''Frontline,'' "High Crimes and Misdemeanors," a detailed and illuminating re-examination of the Iran-contra affair.

In the 90-minute documentary, which will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 9 o'clock, Moyers traces the scandal back to the twin roots that nourished the tree which produced this bitter fruit.

There were the American hostages in captivity in the Mideast and President Reagan promising their families that something would be done to win their freedom. And there was the contra operation, a CIA-sponsored army that was seeking to overthrow, or at least destabilize, the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Efforts in both these areas were carried out from the White House and the adjoining Executive Office Building under the National Security Adviser apparatus where Lt. Col. Ollie North worked.

Moyers secured interviews with former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, top Reagan White House aide Michael Deaver and a variety of other officials. He uses extensive videotaped excerpts from the deposition that Reagan gave for the trial of another former National Security Adviser, John Poindexter.

But he makes his case most effectively with the memos, electronic messages and other evidence that was painstakingly gathered in the various investigations and prosecutions of these matters.

And that case is this -- that Congress passed a law forbidding aid to the contras yet the administration willfully and knowingly broke that law, even as it secretly sold weapons to Iran in violation of another law against aiding terrorist states.

Throughout this time, the administration and its minions -- including our current president -- lied about these acts, to Congress and the American people. When discovered, they tried to cover the mess up, with perhaps the most outrageous moment coming as attorney general Ed Meese kept the professional investigators at bay for several days as he and other Reagan political cronies came up with a plausible tale while giving the crooks time to cover their paper trail.

All of this, Moyers finds, is tantamount to "high crimes and misdemeanors," the constitutional test for the impeachment of a president.

Actually, for those who have followed this case closely over the last four years, there is not that much new here. The 90 minutes is a clear and concise package, but its conclusion has been evident for some time; this was a bunch of arrogant, sleazy liars who thought that their own view of the world was so infallible that such fluff as democracy and the Constitution should not stand in their way.

But why, with nothing that new to report, has Moyers devoted the time and energy to this? Well, clearly it's because he thinks that we have not paid enough attention, have not held enough feet to the fire, especially those of President Bush, and that we let Reagan get away with too much.

And it is here that Moyers seems to have assumed the pulpit, a voice crying in the wilderness to his nation, "Repent! Repent and be saved!"

It is a role that is not Moyers at his best. His strength is in finding the moral ambiguities of an issue, its gray areas, instead of the stark black and white portrayal of good and evil in "High Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Indeed, at this point Moyers would have better served us with an examination of why the nation didn't pay more attention, why we let Reagan get away with deeds that Nixon or Carter would have been nailed for. Was it his popularity, his image, our need not to have another wounded president, or just fatigue after the '60s and '70s?

Moreover, there should have been some acknowledgment of the moral conundrum involved. America sets up a fighting force -- as the CIA did the contras -- and then is required by law to abandon them, presumably to the mercy of their armed enemies. Isn't the bending of the Constitution understandable in such a situation?

"High Crimes and Misdemeanors" is a solid, well-made documentary, but it doesn't have the depth and perspective that we expect from Bill Moyers, because for too much of this hour and a half, he's not teaching, he's preaching.

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