Investigation unveiled ugly political picture



WASHINGTON -- Defense lawyers in criminal cases sometimes follow a strategy known as "wearing out the prosecution" -- delaying the case as long as possible in the hope prosecutors will make a better deal simply to get it settled.

This strategy is, in effect, what former President George Bush managed to do in the Iran-contra affair. The message in the final report from special counsel Lawrence Walsh is that the strategy of stonewalling worked in the end.

The diaries kept by Bush while he was vice president under President Ronald Reagan, said Walsh, would have "shed light" on Bush's own involvement and contradicted his repeated assertions that he was out of the loop and not fully cognizant of the deal to trade arms for hostages and use the proceeds to

fund aid to the contras in Nicaragua in defiance of a congressional prohibition against just such action.

But the diaries were withheld until late in 1992, too late for Walsh to pursue the case because, as he put it, "the trail was cold" and no purpose would be served.

So Bush simply got away with his story and never had to answer questions about entries in those diaries suggesting he had been informed about what was going on and even had been assigned to try to persuade the secretary of state at the time, George Shultz, to tailor his own version of what his position had been on Iran-contra.

Unsurprisingly, Bush's rebuttal to the Walsh finding was the claim he made all along that the whole thing was a "political foreign policy dispute" between the Reagan White House and Congress. In fact, of course, it was far more than that because there were violations of laws against both sending the arms to Iran and the money to the contras.

More to the point, there was clearly a cover-up conducted from the time the arms shipments were disclosed in November 1986 right through the 1992 election and even thereafter, when Bush pardoned Caspar Weinberger and five others. It was through the Weinberger trial that Walsh had hoped to expose the cover-up by using notes the former secretary of defense had made at the time it was being plotted. That pardon, Walsh said, was "an act of friendship or an act of self-protection" on Bush's part that served "no public purpose."

The stonewalling strategy worked so well in large measure because both the public and much of the press finally wearied of the story after the inquiry went on for four or five years. Even the pardons evoked remarkably little backlash except from a few Democrats in Congress and a handful of reporters.

That might not have been the case, however, if the Bush diaries had been disclosed before his 1988 campaign against Michael S. Dukakis, the one in which Bush kept insisting that the whole story already had been told and that he had no culpability. But Walsh and his staff found that Bush had made a calculated decision in 1987 to withhold the diaries. And, with that protection, he was able to get away with fending off questions of Dan Rather and others throughout 1988 -- old stuff, he kept insisting.

In retrospect, it is impossible to guess how political history might have been altered by Bush's success in wearing out the prosecution. It is hard to imagine Dukakis winning the 1988 election under any circumstances, given the spectacular ineptitude of his own campaign. But it is far less difficult to imagine Bush losing the Republican nomination that year to a Bob Dole or perhaps even a Jack Kemp if his true role in the Iran-contra cover-up had been exposed.

As it is, those who distrust their government and their politicians have ample fresh nourishment for that attitude. The right wing has demonized Walsh as a zealot and made much of the $36 million cost of the seven-year inquiry. And Walsh himself admitted "some mistakes of judgment" in conducting the investigation that finally led to 14 prosecutions, the most significant of which were overturned.

But whatever its flaws, the investigation has produced a clear picture of both the Iran-contra affair and the scheming to thwart the investigators. It is not a pretty picture but it is an accurate one.

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