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The Spectacle of History: Speech, Text, and Memory at the Iran-Contra Hearings

The Spectacle of History: Speech, Text, and Memory at the Iran-Contra Hearings

by David Bogen

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How is history produced? How do individuals write—or rewrite—their parts while engaged in the production of history? Michael Lynch and David Bogen take the example of the Iran-contra hearings to explore these questions. These hearings, held in 1987 by the Joint House-Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaragua Opposition


How is history produced? How do individuals write—or rewrite—their parts while engaged in the production of history? Michael Lynch and David Bogen take the example of the Iran-contra hearings to explore these questions. These hearings, held in 1987 by the Joint House-Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaragua Opposition, provided the nation with a media spectacle and a rare chance to see a struggle over the writing of history. There was Oliver North, prime suspect and designated scapegoat, turning into a hero of the American Right before the very eyes of the nation. How this transformation occurred, with the complicity of the press and the public, becomes disturbingly clear in The Spectacle of History.
Lynch and Bogen detail the practices through which the historical agents at the center of the hearings composed, confirmed, used, erased, and denied the historical record. They show how partisan skirmishes over the disclosure of records and testimony led to a divided and irresolute outcome, an outcome further facilitated by the “applied deconstruction” deployed by North and his allies. The Spectacle of History immerses the reader in a crowded field of texts, utterances, visual displays, and media commentaries, but, more than a case study, it develops unique insight into problems at the heart of society and social theory—lying and credibility, the production of civic spectacle, the relationship between testimony and history, the uses of memory, and the interplay between speech and writing.
Drawing on themes from sociology, literary theory, and ethnomethodology and challenging prevailing concepts held by contemporary communication and cultural studies, Lynch and Bogen extract valuable theoretical lessons from this specific and troubling historical episode.

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Duke University Press
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Post-Contemporary Interventions
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The Spectacle of History

Speech, Text, and Memory at the Iran-contra Hearings

By Michael Lynch, David Bogen

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9867-7



In the seventeenth century it was accepted that honesty and sincerity could not be communicated. Anyone claiming to be honest would at the same time give off the impression that there might be doubts about it. —Niklas Luhmann

"I'm not trying to dissemble at all with you."—Oliver North

The Iran-contra story is largely about lies, secrecy, and deception. Oliver North and the other principal characters in the story admitted to withholding evidence, writing false chronologies, and shredding documents. They described elaborate methods for securing and hiding caches of funds and conducting covert operations under pretext. Most interestingly for our purposes, they admitted that these activities were designed to enable "plausible deniability." In other words, according to North's testimony, rather than simply hiding their activities from scrutiny, he and his White House and CIA colleagues prospectively constructed a field of evidence to mislead future inquiries. They anticipated the possibility of an official investigation or other threat of exposure, and they set up their pretexts, alibis, and paper trails accordingly. The testimony about these practices, together with a set of problems associated with the interpretation of such testimony, provide a striking exhibit of how actions in history reflexively become entangled with the investigation of history.

Naturally enough, the investigating committee, the journalists who covered the hearings, and many members of the audience remained curious as to whether North and his fellow operatives were coming clean in their testimony or continuing to dissemble, dissimulate, and withhold significant evidence. This issue came to a head early during the first day of North's testimony on July 7, 1987, when House majority counsel John Nields directly challenged North for having difficulty recalling any details about the records from his office he destroyed shortly after the scandal became public.

Nields: Well that's the whole reason for shredding documents, isn't it, Colonel North, so that you can later say you don't remember, (0.4) whether you had 'em, and you don't remember what's in 'em.

North: No, Mister Nields, the reason for shredding documents, and the reason the Government of the United States gave me a shredder, I mean I didn't buy it myself, was to destroy documents that were no longer relevant, that did not apply or that should not be divulged. And again I want to go back to the whole intent of the covert operation. Part of (in- eh) a covert operation is to offer plausible deniability of the association of the government of the United States with the activity, part of it is to deceive our adversaries. Part of it is to insure that those people who are at great peril, carrying out those activities are not further endangered. All of those are good and sufficient reasons to destroy documents. And that's why the government buys shredders by the tens and dozens. And gives them to people running covert operations. Not so that they can have convenient memories. I came here to tell you the truth. To tell you:: and this committee, and the American people the truth, and I'm trying to do that Mister Nields, °hh and I don't like the insinuation that I'm up here having a convenient memory lapse, like perhaps some others have had.

Nields: Colonel North, you shredded these documents on the Twenty-first of November, Nineteen-eighty-six, isn't that true? (1.2)

North: Try me again on the date. (1.0)

Nields: Friday, the Twenty-first of November, Nineteen-eighty-six. (1.8)

Nields: I started shredding documents as early as:: uh my return from Europe in October (0.4)

North: I have absolutely no recollection (0.2) when those documents were deswere shredded. None whatsoever.=

Nields: =There's been testimony before the committee that you engaged in shredding of documents on November the Twenty-first, Nineteen-eighty-six.

North: [(as-) [

Nields: [Do you deny that?

North: I do not deny that I engaged in shredding on November Twenty-first. (1.2) I will also tell this committee that I engaged in shredding (.) almost every day that I had a shredder. And that I put things in burn bags when I didn't. (0.8) So, every single day that I was at the National Security Counsel Staff, some documents were destroyed. (0.6) And I don't want you to- to have the impression (0.2) that (.) those documents that I referred to (0.2) seeking approval, disappeared on the Twenty-first, 'cause I can't say that.

This exchange is rich with pragmatic moves that recurred throughout North's testimony: failures to recall significant details, temporal refram-ings of acknowledged actions and events, and self-righteous proclamations in response to questions and challenges. We shall revisit these moves at length, but for the present we shall observe only how North denies what Nields suggests is the "whole reason" for his apparent inability to remember significant details of the matter in question. Nields's initial challenge suggests that history was being fabricated from both ends: from a retrospective vantage point in the present, and from an anticipatory one in the past. North's present testimony fails to recall certain details from his past, and as an actor in the past he may have shredded documentary evidence of those same details. North counteracts this scenario by giving an alternative rationale for his shredding-as-usual on the date in question. Not only that, he expresses strong indignation at the very suggestion that he could be dissimulating, and, in a memorable evocation of truthfulness and patriotism, he reaffirms his will to tell the truth.

Sequences of testimony like this one create a number of analytic temptations, two of which immediately come to mind. First, it is tempting to declare that North certainly is lying, and then to give an account of how his lies can be made visible through an inspection of his words and body behavior, together with a reconstruction of what he must have known. Second, there is the temptation to politicize the question of lying by subordinating truth to a clash of ideologies. These analytic paths are temptations not because they are likely to lead to error, but because they would be all too easy to pursue with the materials at hand. The problem with yielding to such temptations is that one settles presumptively what often remains contentious and unresolved at the surface of the testimony. In contrast, we want to investigate how the parties to the testimony employed the distinction between truth and lying, and how they articulated the opposition between politics and value neutrality.


During North's unsuccessful run for a U.S. Senate seat in Virginia in 1994, virtually every journalist, writer, and commentator who did not agree with his politics, as well as many others who did, went on record to say that he lied or deliberately concealed what he knew during the Iran-contra hearings, and many accused him of being a pathological liar. Notable in this context was Robert McFarlane's characterization of North as "an Elmer Gantry without peer ... a man not suited for public life." Nevertheless, the widely shared suspicion that North lied, or even that he was an inveterate liar, does not equip us to inspect the record of his 1987 testimony in order to find just when and just how he was lying. We say this not to admit a failure of analysis (or of nerve), but to identify a salient feature of the testimony itself. The conclusion that North or any of the other witnesses lied, or must have lied, at some point in the testimony settles very little, and it reveals even less about the way credibility is built up or undermined in testimony. Like others who viewed the Iran-contra hearings, we were able to see that some of the things North said were corroborated by other testimonies and documents, while others were not, and we have read a number of accounts that impugned North's credibility on matters of trivial, as well as major, importance. Judgments nevertheless differ about the extent, justifiability, and consequences of his lying. For some people the acknowledged and alleged lying mattered a great deal, but for others not at all. North's own admissions during his 1987 testimony that he lied in the past certainly did not diminish his credibility for major elements of the U.S. public. Instead, the forthright way he made those admissions apparently enhanced his credibility, although perhaps only for those in the audience who were inclined to support him on other grounds. Given the traditional conception of the man of honor whose social standing essentially depends on a steadfast truthfulness, this is a curious matter. It would be all too easy to condemn North as a hypocrite, and to dismiss his supporters as a band of fanatical ideologues, but to do so would obscure the fact that he and his allies managed to sustain a counterdrama of truthfulness and sincerity even while North disclosed an elaborate scheme of lies and deceptions designed to thwart the very sort of inquiry the committee was conducting. Both as a logical and historical matter, this tangled relationship between deception and revelation is far more interesting to explore than the mere fact of North's lying.

Although we shall recount some stories about North's lying, and we shall delve into some of the reasons given for suspecting or concluding that he lied, we do not intend to conduct a rump perjury trial under academic auspices. We are not nearly as well equipped for such a task as was Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who headed an extensive criminal investigation of North and several of the story's other main characters. Walsh did successfully convict North for lying to congress, but not in his testimony at the hearings, and even those convictions were overturned on appeal. We are more prepared (and inclined) to explore how truth, lies, and related matters were made relevant and practically managed in and through the testimony. Consequently, we shall describe how the parties to the hearings produced and contested the factual, moral, and political grounds for truth-telling and lying.

Although the concept of lying calls into play questions about truth or falsity, the grammatical relationship between truth-telling and lying is not a simple binary opposition between making true and false statements. In ordinary English usage, "to lie" is to commit an act. There is no equivalent verb "to truth." One can tell the truth, be truthful, speak truthfully, or withhold the truth, but "truth" is not a verb; it is grammatically positioned beyond the compass of an act. In contrast, lies and lying actively distort, cover up, or depart from a more natural, omnirelevant truth. Because of the way this picture of truth and lying is deeply entrenched in language, it is not equivalent to a belief or theory of meaning that can be changed or overthrown through argument. It pervades the very syntax of argumentative conduct.

As usually defined, a lie involves two essential ingredients: (1) a contradiction (or notable difference) between a statement and the relevant facts, and (2) a judgment that the speaker knows the relevant facts and deliberately acts to conceal or misrepresent them. This definition presupposes the possibility of distinguishing the facts of the matter from what is said about them and deciding that the speaker knows the difference and intends to mislead the recipient(s) of the lie. An element of responsibility thus is associated with lying, whereas responsibility for truth-telling is made explicit only in circumstances where doubt or special difficulty might arise. Truth has default status.

The picture gets more complicated when we consider the family of concepts associated with lying in ethical, legal, and ordinary discourse: fabrication (simulation), deceptiveness, mendacity, dissembling, and Dissimulation. These terms bring into play different modes of operation and variable degrees of culpability. At the Iran-contra hearings the term most often used in connection with lying in testimony was to "dissemble" (to speak in a way that conceals the reality of the events in question). Although dissembling or dissimulation (concealing one's motives or knowledge) should be prohibited under the oath to tell the whole truth in testimony, they nevertheless tend to be associated with lesser degrees of guilt and less severe accusations. Richard Nixon, for example, is said to have objected to the charge that he lied, while being willing to acknowledge that dissembling—concealing his opinions, motives, and knowledge—was an inevitable part of his dealings with other world leaders.

In courtrooms, congressional hearings, and many other areas of modern life, the criteria formulated by John Locke continue to describe heuristic grounds for assessing credibility: "the number of witnesses, their integrity, their skill at presenting evidence, and its agreement with the circumstances, and lastly, the presence or absence of contrary testimony." In practice, it can be difficult, and at times impossible, to tell the difference between truthful and untruthful testimony. Such difficulty is part and parcel of courtroom drama. A typical courtroom trial includes conflicting testimonies given before jurors who are supposed to have no knowledge of "what really happened" aside from what they gather from the evidence presented to them in situ. In some cases, most notoriously with rape trials, the only eyewitness accounts of what happened are supplied by the conflicting testimonies of the implicated parties, and when the defendant chooses not to testify, credibility judgments are focused on the alleged victim. In such cases, a witness's performance on the stand is crucial.

Unlike the jurors at North's 1989 criminal trial who were selected under the condition that they were substantially uninformed of North's involvements in the highly publicized Iran-contra affair, the members of the Senate and House committees were well informed about, and sometimes implicated in, the events being investigated. Like courtroom jurors, however, they professed to have no direct knowledge of many of the covert actions that North described in his testimony, and as uninvolved parties they made various efforts to corroborate his testimony with other testimonies, written documents, photographs, and other forms of evidence. Like jurors, they had little alternative but to accept or reject the witness's testimony on the basis of surface or face-value assessments of credibility and plausibility. As we will discuss, in chapters on the organization of questions, answers, and the discursive production of "recollections," the production and assessment of testimony involves binary yes-or-no judgments. At the same time, however, interrogators, witnesses, and their overhearers contend with a slippery field of discourse in which efforts to exclude the middle between the binary poles of yes or no, true or false, and guilty or not guilty become difficult to bring off.


The strong suspicion that North lied during the hearings can be supported by citing his own admissions about his past actions. He admitted to having intentionally misinformed members of Congress during meetings a year before the hearings. He also admitted to shredding many of the files in his office prior to, and even during, the attorney general's investigation of the emerging scandal in November 1986, and he explicitly described an entire containment strategy devised by the late CIA chief William Casey. According to this fall guy plan, North (and, if necessary, someone a step higher in the NSC staff hierarchy) would take the blame for the most scandalous aspects of the administration's covert weapons sales and fund-raising activities. Although North disclosed this plan in his testimony, he and his immediate boss, John Poindexter, may have continued to enact it. As specified in the plan, albeit not necessarily because of the plan, Poindexter eventually took responsibility for authorizing the diversion of funds to the contras. The records that survived the shredder and that were released to the committee did not contradict Poindexter's testimony. Casey, the alleged author of the plan, died of a brain tumor just as the hearings began. In this and related aspects of the Iran-contra story, the disclosure of strategies did not negate the possibility of their continued enactment.

After the hearings, North's credibility was further impugned by the fact that he was convicted on three criminal charges, two of which had to do with deceiving Congress and destroying evidence. However, these convictions were overturned on appeal because of the possibility that evidence North gave under immunity at the hearings had influenced the testimony of witnesses at his criminal trial. Numerous other lies are documented in books and articles about the Iran-contra affair. Theodore Draper, for example, musters documentary evidence to support his charge that North lied in a "most unconscionable" way when he told the attorney general in 1986 that the Israelis initially suggested the idea of diverting funds from Iranian arms sales to aid the contras.

In addition to chronicling the official lies that North told in the capacity of a government operative, several writers noted that he seemed to have a general penchant for fictionalizing his supposedly heroic past. In an unauthorized biography of North published shortly after the Iran-contra hearings, Ben Bradlee Jr. noted:

Aside from North's admitted lying to Congress about the contras, his admitted lying to the Iranians, his admitted falsifying of the Iran initiative chronology, his admitted shredding of documents and his admitted lying to various administration officials as the Iran-contra affair unraveled in November of 1986, there are stories, statements or claims that he has made to various people while at the National Security Council that are either untrue, strongly denied, or unconfirmable and thought to be untrue.


Excerpted from The Spectacle of History by Michael Lynch, David Bogen. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael Lynch is Professor in the Department of Human Sciences at Brunel University, Middlesex.

David Bogen is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Emerson College.

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