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Questions About Bush's Iran-Contra Role Resurface

By Doyle McManus
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON

Like dogged ghosts from a past that President Bush would rather forget, questions from the Iran-Contra scandal have resurfaced in the presidential campaign, reviving once more the issue of Bush's truthfulness about his actions as Ronald Reagan's vice president.

Ever since the scandal erupted almost six years ago, Bush has maintained that he was unaware that Reagan was secretly trading weapons to Iran as ransom for American hostages, and that he did not realize that then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz PhD '49 and then-Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger bitterly opposed the deal.

But the testimony of other high officials has contradicted the key points of Bush's account.

Now Democratic candidate Bill Clinton is seeking to focus public attention on the issue, arguing that more attention should be paid to what he calls Bush's deliberate misrepresentations of his role. "It seems to be that he is not telling the truth about this," Clinton spokesman George Stephanopoulos said Thursday. "I think George Bush has a big credibility problem."

The Clinton attacks are designed not only to create immediate problems for Bush but, indirectly, to help Clinton overcome his own credibility problems, which polls show remain serious. By suggesting that almost all politicians have credibility problems at some time or other, Clinton may persuade undecided voters that questions about his own candor on such things as his draft record should not disqualify him for the presidency.

If voters decide that neither candidate has a spotless record, said Republican pollster Vince Breglio, they are more likely to base their choice on other issues -- most notably, the economy, which is Clinton's strongest point of appeal.

Seeking to blunt the Democratic attack, Bush maintains that the question is closed. "This seems to me to be just a late smokescreen out of that dead old saw," the president said earlier this week. "I have nothing to explain. I've given every bit of evidence I have to these thousands of investigators. And nobody has suggested that I've done anything wrong at all."

In fact, Democrats and others have long suggested that Bush may at the least be making implausible claims of ignorance about the affair. But the accusations have never blossomed into a serious problem for Bush, in part because his claim not to remember is difficult to disprove and in part because he -- unlike other figures in the Iran-Contra drama -- has never been seriously examined by investigators armed with the power to compel testimony.

A congressional committee investigated the scandal during most of 1987, but it never focused on Bush -- both because the panel operated under a short deadline and because Democratic members feared going after the vice president would make them appear too partisan.

"There still remain many unanswered questions," said Sen. George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, a member of the Senate investigating committee. "Our timeframe ... was clearly inadequate."

Special prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh has spent more than five years investigating the scandal, and has brought charges against 14 defendants, but he never focused on Bush either -- because he was concentrating on acts that could lead to criminal prosecution. The main charges against Bush are not of criminal misconduct, but of distorting the truth -- a political sin, perhaps, but not a criminal offense.

The crux of the substantive issue of Bush's role in Iran-Contra is whether he has told the truth about what he knew about the secret arms sales to Iran when he was in a position, as vice president, to try to stop the possibly illegal scheme.