Speaker Tom Foley and Senate Democratic Leader George Mitchell have properly assigned to two small, very low-profile subcommittees the responsibility to make a preliminary investigation into charges of a Reagan-Bush "deal" with Iran in 1980 on the timing of the release of the embassy hostages. This is a story with much potential for irresponsible politicking and for damaging all concerned. If Congress must investigate this old story, it must not provide a stage for showboating.
If in fact candidates Ronald Reagan and George Bush and their 1980 campaign director, William Casey, were involved in an arrangement with the Ayatollah Khomeini government to hold the hostages longer than would have otherwise been the case, they could be found guilty of callousness, impropriety, illegality, even, perhaps, treason.
Of course, they might only have been mere passive beneficiaries of the fruits of Khomeini's hatred for the administration of President Jimmy Carter, or beneficiaries of President Carter's ineptitude in his attempt to gain the hostages' release in time to achieve maximum political benefit.
Conclusive proof of any of the suspected actualities will harm someone, perhaps greatly. It may only be harm to historical reputation in the cases of the two ex-presidents, but if President Bush is proven to have conspired in some unsavory deal, his political future as well as his reputation could be in jeopardy.
That, of course, may make it difficult for Republicans to be as open minded as they should be. House Republican Leader Bob Michel has already said, in advance of any investigation, "there's nothing there." We suspect he may be proven right, that nothing of significance and provable (after all these years) happened. But we think a better intellectual stance at this point is that taken by Gary Sick, the former National Security Council aide, who wrote after a lengthy study, "When I look at the whole lot of it, I cannot conclude that nothing happened."
Mr. Michel also said "people back home don't give two hoots about [the charges]." We think they do. At least they want to know whether something or nothing happened. A Times-Mirror Poll showed Americans favoring an investigation by 57-38 percent. The three presidents involved also have indicated they want the rumors replaced by facts, if possible. Those presidents are not the only ones with a stake in the outcome of this investigation. Congress has its own reputation to consider. The congressional Iran-contra hearings were considered by many Americans clumsy, partisan and damaging to the legal process. If this probe into the 1980 campaign produces a similar reaction, the institution will be harmed, as it should be.