REVISITING IRAN-CONTRA. The more I look back on it, the way that the crimes of the Iran-Contra affair came to such an uncertain conclusion, the more it strikes me as a lost opportunity, and not just because so many of the principals are back to screwing up the nation now, 20 years later, although that's a pretty good reason in and of itself. What Iran-Contra resembles is nothing less than an embryonic exercise in the notion, now popular in the lunchroom at the Department of Justice, that the Executive Powers section of the Constitution resembles more closely than anything the operating principles of the Corleone family. Of course, back then, the president -- good ol' infinitely impeachable Dutch Reagan -- chose not to faithfully execute only a few laws, and not 800 of them, but the theory that the president pretty much can do what he pleases in foreign affairs obtains, in both cases, a fundamentally un-American heresy that should have been crushed into the dust along with the public careers of people like Elliott Abrams and Oliver North.

Instead, what we got was a dress rehearsal for all the problems this passel of clowns has revisited upon us, with a vengeance, today. There was a supine national press -- "The whole thing is just too...confusing." -- that declined to press the case to its logical ending. (Thank you, Mark Hertsgaard, for your sadly still-relevant On Bended Knee.) Imagine, for a moment, if poor old Lawrence Walsh had been the recipient of a few of the lovey-dovey Broderian valentines that were directed at that bed-sniffing yahoo, Kenneth Starr. The Congress made a horrible hash of things: first, through that futile Great White Father whitewash known as the Tower Commission, and then by bungling its own committee investigation so badly that it provided the loopholes itself that people like Abrams and North eventually ducked through. Today, Congress is deliberately obtuse. Back then, it was simply obtuse. And let us not forget the minority report that concluded, startlingly, that Congress was "abusing its power" by looking into the affair in the first place. Its author is now the vice president of the United States.

I have no idea whether chucking the whole lot of them into the federal sneezer back in '87 would have changed much of anything, but it would have been a big defeat for this notion of the presidency, and an even bigger one to the notion of self-government by automatic pilot -- the idea that the American people are too fragile, too busy, and (yes) too dumb to be told that their government is staffed by thieves, mountebanks, comic adventurers (Remember the trip to Teheran with the Bible and the cake?) and intercontinental suckers. (Has Ghorbanifar ever sent Ollie North's underwear back to him?) In 2000, we were told that the country was too delicate for a true constitutional process to resolve a contested election, so the Important People of the Supreme Court had to step in. A year later, we were told that the country could not afford to know the truth about the bungling that contributed to the deaths of nearly 3,000 of our fellow citizens because we might all get angry at Daddy, who is there to protect us. Two years later, we had to be lied into a war because, if we knew the whole truth, well, we might never trust again all those towering figures who worship each other on the panel shows every Sunday. And, then, when we see Ollie North on television, arguing for a general war in the Middle East, and citing his experience selling missiles to the Iranian mullahs, we might all laugh. And then where would we be?

--Charles P. Pierce