The Iran-Contra panel yesterday received its best testimony so far about how the Contras were kept alive while U.S. aid was suspended. If the members had listened carefully, they would have learned that their micromanaging of Nicaragua policy was at least as big a problem as Ollie North's entrepreneurship. We only hope this bitter lesson will not lead them to assassinate the reputation of witness Elliott Abrams out of spite.
It has been a good week for Washington's reputation assassins. Clarence Thomas, on the doorstep of the Supreme Court, has been pulled down by a Washington establishment determined to make him understand that conservatism in that town carries a cost, as it has for so many individuals since 1980. Elliott Abrams, who in his years in the State Department did as much as anyone to create a new world order of democratic self-determination across Latin America, was brought down by Lawrence Walsh. What an awful, lurid place the American capital must now seem to the rest of the country.
As we went to press it appeared that Judge Thomas would be required to restore his reputation by proving the unprovable. No court at any level in the United States would entertain this uncorroborated accusation. Washington, having become one big kangaroo court, will do so with glee. One can only hope that Judge Thomas--and apparently his only uncowed political defender, Sen. John Danforth-- will prevail over the grim forces arrayed against him. (At Kennebunkport the day of the nomination, President Bush asked Judge Thomas if he and his family were prepared to endure what was to come. We imagine Judge Thomas, in assenting, took this to mean that Mr. Bush would remain on the front lines.)
Does one need a flavor of what is going on here? Fancy this. Yesterday afternoon, as it was becoming apparent that the vote would be delayed, who should rise on the floor of the Senate to speak but the distinguished senior Senator from Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy. This is what Teddy said:
`If members of the Senate ignore Professor Hill's serious charges, if the Senate votes on this nomination without making a serious attempt to resolve this issue, the Senate will bring dishonor on this great body * * *. If Professor Hill's allegations are true, Judge Thomas denied Professor Hill her right to work free from sexual harassment.'
The Democratic Party is now led by the likes of this and such figures as Howard Metzenbaum and Howell Heflin. It is intriguing to contemplate the political ramifications of the party of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson not only trying to defeat a distinguished black American from sitting on the Supreme Court but destroying his person as well. In another time, there would have been party wise men to warn against going this far, but today the Democrats derive their wisdom from Ralph Neas, Kate Michelman and Paul Simon.
In pleading, Elliott Abrams has at least managed to free himself from the peculiar hellishness of the place. Congress' robotic Terminator, Lawrence Walsh, had pinned Mr. Abrams into a Hobson's choice and got the guilty plea. Mr. Abrams' alternative was to spend a minimum of $1 million defending himself against a $100 million, taxpayer-funded prosecution. Mr. Walsh was determined to get someone from the State Department, so he got what he wanted. And because Mr. Abrams had spent his years in the Reagan administration bluntly and publicly criticizing Congress' policies and indirectly the permanent Washington establishment, they both got what they wanted: Elliott Abrams on the front pages with the words `Pleads Guilty' appended.
Well, if character still counts for anything in Washington, we suspect that Mr. Abrams' reputation will survive this.
History can judge Mr. Abrams, but we have some preliminary thoughts. Congress and the Walsh operation during this period are tied forever to one phrase--Iran-Contra. That was their choice. By comparison, Mr. Abrams has a legitimate claim as a major architect of the new democratic structure of Latin America.
He worked, spoke and wrote tirelessly on behalf of democratic self-determination throughout the continent, and he helped keep the Contras alive body and soul until Danny Ortega was forced to accept free elections. Mr. Abrams urged that U.S. policy separate itself from Panama's Manuel Noriega. He pushed for a plebiscite on General Pinochet, and was the first member of the U.S. administration to oppose Marcos.
Both Judge Thomas and Mr. Abrams came to Washington to perform public service. In the same week, Washington has now tried to destroy both of them. It is of course useful to denounce what the city has become, but in the interests of preserving the system, more than a few people better start actively fighting back against the worst of it.