Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has become the latest voice of influence to sing the praises of former Rep. Lee Hamilton, who is almost universally hailed in U.S. power circles as a modern-day Wise Man, a Democratic centrist who shuns partisanship and puts love of country over politics.
But the sad truth is that Lee Hamilton has done great damage to the U.S. political process by elevating bipartisanship above a commitment to the truth. One reason why many Americans buy into baseless conspiracy theories today is that Hamilton failed to expose real ones when he was in Congress.
For instance, it was surely "bipartisan" in August 1986 when Hamilton joined other members of the House Intelligence Committee, including Rep. Dick Cheney, in concluding that stories about White House aide Oliver North running money and guns to the Nicaraguan contras were false.
Hamilton, then the committee's chairman, accepted denials from North and his boss, National Security Adviser John Poindexter, and agreed to kill a proposed congressional investigation into what was then known as "the North network."
Since I and my Associated Press colleague Brian Barger had been writing the stories about North's secret operation (based then on about two dozen sources), I got a call from one of Hamilton's aides and was told that Hamilton and the panel had the choice of "believing you and your 24 sources or these honorable men. And it wasn't a close call."
It was, however, an erroneous call. And it was not without consequences, both in the larger scheme of things and on the personal side.
At the AP that summer, Barger had been assigned to the overnight desk as a way to transition him onto the AP regular staff (he originally had been hired into a temporary position to work with me on the North project). However, in August, Barger was informed that his time on the overnight would be extended indefinitely, a development that prompted Barger to quit.
If Hamilton had done his duty by insisting on a real investigation to get at the truth about North's network instead of caving in to Cheney and the other Republicans our situation at AP would have been quite different. With a congressional investigation validating our reporting, I probably could have sprung Barger from his overnight assignment and kept our team together.
Instead, Hamilton's out-of-hand rejection of an investigation amounted to a repudiation of our work our critics quickly noted that even the Democrats deemed our reporting not worthy of pursuit and AP management was left with an impression that we had taken the news agency out onto a dangerous limb.
In the bigger picture, Hamilton was demonstrating what would become his M.O., putting bipartisanship and collegiality ahead of truth and accountability.
For the next few months, the AP investigation of North, which also had lifted the curtain on the Reagan administration's tolerance of contra drug trafficking, remained in limbo.
However, on Oct. 5, 1986, one of the last planned flights by North's little contra-supply air force was shot down over Nicaragua. One American onboard, Eugene Hasenfus, survived and began talking.
Between Hasenfus's account and documents that were recovered from the plane, it became clear that not only were our earlier articles about the North network true but that the secret contra supply operation was bigger and more sophisticated than we had understood.
Nevertheless, President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush and other officials continued to deny a U.S. government connection to the downed plane. Apparently, the White House remained confident that it could fend off the growing evidence. After all, it had successfully co-opted Hamilton and the intelligence committee in August.
But the scandal continued to grow. In early November 1986, a Beirut newspaper disclosed Reagan's secret arms-for-hostages deals with Iran.