© 1991 The Times Mirror Company

Los Angeles Times
Sunday, June 16, 1991

Book Reviews, p. 5.

Fanning the Embers of Iran-Contra
By Larry Bensky

Bensky covered the Iran-Contra hearings, and the trial of Oliver North,
for Pacifica radio, where he is national-affairs correspondent.

By Theodore Draper (Hill and Wang: $27.95; 610 pp.)

Keeping up with the major and minor astonishments of the Iran-Contra affair has now become a task for historians. Journalists have, for the most part, given up stirring the ashes of a fire which, nevertheless, still glows.

Finding that glow becomes ever more daunting, if only for the sheer volume of the ashes. The 1986 Tower Board proceedings; the 1987 Senate-House hearings; the Independent Counsel's 4 1/2-year investigation, including major trials for Oliver North and John Poindexter, with attendant transcripts, pleadings, exhibits, and appeals; diverse memoirs of many Reagan-era officials and continuing Congressional confirmation hearings for others -- it all continues to add up to several annual forests of paper to ponder.

Theodore Draper, a 79-year-old historian whose work dates back to a 1944 study of the World War II, accepted early on the challenge of burying himself in Iran-Contra. His 1987 articles in the New York Review of Books were, along with Frances Fitzgerald's work in Rolling Stone and the New Yorker, the most perspicacious in the cottage industry on the matter which quickly evolved.

Now, Draper estimates he has burrowed through more than 50,000 of the published pages associated, thus far, with Iran-Contra. He did this, he tells us, because the scandal was not "an aberration," but was "brought on by a long process of presidential aggrandizement, congressional fecklessness and judicial connivance," which ultimately "threatened the constitutional foundation of this country."

The result, in "A Very Thin Line," is a thorough and -- one need hardly add -- well-documented account of Iran-Contra. Starting with the Reagan Administration's twin obsessions of unseating the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and freeing the American hostages in Lebanon, Draper traces a detailed web of intrigue and ineptitude through the '80s, an epoch in which he finds few heroes, multiple villains and dangling culpabilities which, if unresolved, easily could allow similar malfeasance in the future.

Draper's methodology -- telling the story chronologically through nearly 2,000 citations and excerpts from printed sources -- produces a surprisingly readable and coherent narrative. At the same time, it represents a major obstacle to "A Very Thin Line" being a definitive book on the subject.

Documents are obviously indispensable sources for historical research into periods whose protagonists are dead, but relying upon them exclusively, as Draper does, for a saga still very much inhabited by the living makes his work seem like a story about a library which collapsed while full of people, and reading only about what happened to the books.

Moreover, Draper continues the Washington-centric tradition that has obtained in all the major studies of Iran-Contra to date. Although he contributes valuable new material, and new readings of already known documents, there remains a vast field to be explored through written and interview sources in such diverse climes as El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Portugal, Argentina, Israel, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Poland, Taiwan and Brunei.

Nevertheless, "A Very Thin Line" makes a valuable contribution to the growing post-facto horror chronicles of President Reagan's leading misadventure. Draper shares the general conclusion of two other useful recent books -- Haynes Johnson's "Sleepwalking Through History" and Lou Cannon's 'President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime" -- that Iran-Contra essentially flowed from the top. Although it was operationally organized by the militaristic muddlers who aggrandized their staff roles in the National Security Council (North, Poindexter, Robert McFarlane et al.), it was protected by nominally superior cabinet officers who failed to exercise normal supervision, or to act on their own deepest qualms.

Draper is most upset -- and those who take the trouble to follow his lengthy narrative can hardly help sharing his feelings -- with the ineptly operating, ideologically driven fantasy world of President Reagan's chief cabinet officers. Their lackadaisical complicity, amply documented in "A Very Thin Line," clearly made Iran-Contra possible.

But above them, at the heart of the Iran-Contra mess, lay an amazingly incompetent President whom the affair turned into a "false leader or innocent dupe" who was eventually reduced to a shaky speechmaker grudgingly assuming "responsibility for irresponsibility."

Deluded by electoral success and isolated by his own associates, Draper's Reagan delegated responsibility to "a few strategically placed insiders infatuated with their own sense of superiority and incorruptibility." They set about implementing what they thought were the President's foreign-policy wishes, but "few Presidents," Draper concludes, "have been as little prepared as (Reagan) was to be his own secretary of state."

These conclusions, well-supported by the evidence which Draper marshals, are hardly astonishing; indeed, they represent the prevailing historical orthodoxy about Iran-Contra at the present time. If anything, Draper is kinder to Reagan and his cabinet than are other chroniclers of the period, most recently Cannon and Johnson.

For Draper, however, the Iran-Contra matter has as its main interest not the inadequacies, defalcations and ineptitudes of its major and minor players but in its potential as a constitutional crisis waiting to be repeated.

Though Draper does not, in "A Very Thin Line," reassert the alarmist conclusion of his 1987 New York Review of Books article that Iran-Contra represented the closest this country has come to a military coup, one is aware throughout that he remains appalled at his subject: a world of Reagan-era "bright, ambitious, aggressive young men and women on the make with newly minted conservative convictions," intermingling with people who were "happy to combine patriotism and profit."

It was, as Draper amply shows, a situation tailor-made for opportunists, zealots and manipulators to function for their own diverse ends. He gives us the most complete accounting to date of how Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar, Washington pro-Israeli fixer Michael Ledeen, various Israeli representatives, North -- an eccentric, previously obscure Marine lieutenant colonel, and such damaged goods as former Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Secord came to weave their spell.

Draper is especially skilled at pointing out the contradictions among various documentary and published evidentiary trails and sorting them out, sometimes conclusively. Here again, one longs to have had a different book, however -- one in which Draper's evidence confronts various parties, and they get a chance to respond. Some of them obviously would refuse. Some would request anonymity. Some would help him correct the various minor factual errors which contradictory documents have provided him, and which will bother experts in the case when they read his book.

But most of all, some might well be ready to talk. When they do, "A Very Thin Line" will immeasurably assist their interviewers in advancing the tale even further.