Story of North prosecution: 'smart-aleck lawyering at its most unattractive'

March 24, 1991|By Lyle Denniston

OPENING ARGUMENTS:

A YOUNG LAWYER'S FIRST

CASE: UNITED STATES

V. OLIVER NORTH.

Jeffrey Toobin.

Viking.

358 pages. $22.95. Jeffrey Toobin has an overdeveloped infatuation with the metaphor of sports. Put that together with his boyish world view that all of life's grand struggles necessarily come out as a Win or a Loss, and this entire book's facile formula is exposed in full view.

If Booth Tarkington had merely skimmed this volume before he wrote his satire about the thoroughly unpleasant lad who resented fiercely ever being called "Little Gentleman," that classic short story would have been enriched deeply.

Mr. Toobin's pages are suffused with a practiced adolescent snideness -- unrelieved by the conventional expectation that, when he grows up, he may mellow.

This book, in short, is about smart-aleck lawyering at its most unattractive.

This was supposedly intended to be a lawyer's story, written from the inside, about the special prosecutor's investigation and prosecution of the key figure in the Iran-contra scandal, former White House aide Oliver L. North.

Invested with the status of a legal representative of the United States government (a status one might suppose would suggest some humility, reserve and a sense of proportion), Mr. Toobin nonetheless finds himself driven to this kind of judgment about his first case as a young lawyer:

"We had seen enough of Ollie [North] and his lawyers. We were human beings -- and we wanted to beat their asses."

And, looking back on his experience as one of the prosecution team in the North case and comparing that with his later status as an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, he concludes his book by declaring: "On good days . . . I still see our potential -- to catch bad guys, to right wrongs, and to do justice."

"Opening Arguments" is, emphatically, not about doing justice.

It is, rather, a revealing self-portrait of a verbally cute graduate of the Harvard Law School who left the halls in Cambridge without having learned two fundamental lessons:

First, that criminal law represents an awesome massing of terrifying government authority, which, because of that, should be used with the utmost delicacy and fineness of touch.

And, second, that the majesty of the criminal justice process can be sadly cheapened when it is viewed as if it were a process roughly equivalent to a brutish, over-muscled fullback crashing the goal line.

Mr. Toobin, perhaps unintentionally, pronounces his own indictmentin his concluding chapter: "My initial ambitions for the job were more those of an adolescent than a prosecutor." Reading the book front to back, it becomes evident that this smart young man did not grow up much in the job.

The specific limitations and flaws of this book run the gamut. As history, it is resolutely shallow; as drama, it is frequently contrived; as commentary, it is rarely convincing; as legal analysis, it is conspicuously incomplete; and as journalism, it is incorrigibly one-sided.

It is, therefore, very puzzling indeed why his former boss, Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh, spent lots of lawyers' energy and (one supposes) a good deal of the government's money trying to persuade a federal judge to suppress this book.

Mr. Walsh, who feels Mr. Toobin's petty lash throughout the book, might have been reacting to those stings. Or, one wonders foolishly, was Mr. Walsh trying -- in an avuncular sort of way -- to spare Mr. Toobin the embarrassment of having this book out in public?

Whatever motive was behind it, Mr. Walsh's challenge was a clumsy and undignified legal maneuver of its own, and was rejected -- not surprisingly -- by federal judge John F. Keenan in January. The fight, of course, was not unhelpful to the marketing of the book, or to the literary martyrdom of Mr. Toobin.

It is helpful, in reading this book, to keep in mind that the Iran-contra investigation led by Mr. Walsh (and still going on, after more than four years) was one of the most important events in modern American government. It was an attempt to use the criminal law to get to the bottom of a scandal that had been within striking distance of bringing about the downfall of Ronald Reagan, and that had some potential of forever tarring George Bush.

Congress, displaying the same kind of tepid interest and look-the-other-way oversight that had allowed the scandal to develop under its nose, had done an investigation leaving many of the core questions unanswered.

It was Mr. Walsh's task to see whether the rest of the story could be found out, and then to decide whether anyone deserved criminal punishment over it.

That was a grand commission, one deserving of the very best that professional lawyers can give -- all the while keeping zeal in check by a constant self-reminder that the criminal law does not do terribly well when it tries to police the political and constitutional combat between the White House and Congress over disputed public policy.

But, as Mr. Toobin tells the story, this was cops-and-robbers, kids' stuff, little boys sometimes pretending to be grown-ups, sometimes swinging a prosecutorial cat around by the tail in the parlor while the preacher is visiting. It makes for fun reading -- if it were fiction or a television play.

It is said that "L.A. Law" has drawn legions of smart kids into the legal trade. It seems, also, to be inspiring some of them to authorship.

Mr. Denniston covers the Supreme Court for The Sun.

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