"The Nightingale's Song," by Robert Timberg. 543 pages. Simon & Schuster. New York. $27.50
As Washington commotions go, Iran-Contra seemed to have it all: Iranian mullahs; Nicaraguan guerrillas; U.S. hostages; bag men, arms dealers and secret agents; a rogue Air Force General, TOW missiles and a mysterious chocolate cake. But, for many Americans, it never came together as a narrative with a beginning, an end and a clear moral lesson.
Now Robert Timberg, deputy chief of The Sun's Washington bureau, has found a trail through this tangle of skulduggery; a gritty language in which to cast his compelling non-fiction account; and if not quite a single moral crescendo, then at least a set of caveats that this nation ought to heed for years to come.
What allowed Timberg to master the snarl that defeated other would-be narrators was the recognition that five men at the center, or on the edge, of these events were - like the author himself - graduates of the United States Naval Academy: John M. Poindexter and John S. McCain from the Class of l958; Robert C. McFarlane from the Class of l959; and from the Class of l968, James H. Webb Jr. and Oliver North.
By starting and ending with the Academy - with its sophomoric hazing, rigid code of loyalty and do-or-die-ethos - he finds new meaning in Iran-Contra's transgressions. The essence of an Annapolis education, Timberg suggests, is the "Message to Garcia" mentality inculcated there: drawn from the tale of the young naval lieutenant who in 1898 was ordered by President William McKinley to deliver a message to a Cuban general named Garcia. It took the Annapolis man a month to penetrate the jungle, but without complaint, he delivered his message to Garcia.
In that parable was a lesson for "Ollie" North's and "Bud" McFarlane's generation as well - carry out your commander-in-chief's orders without grumbling, without questions, without scruples. Timberg believes that it was this reflexive instinct which drew North, McFarlane, Poindexter and Webb into the morass of Iran-Contra.
By the same token, he argues, the ultimate blame does not lie with them, the Annapolis graduates who carried out orders, but with their commander-in-chief, Ronald Reagan. Timberg's portrait of Reagan is devastating. He is the "actor who once played straight man to a chimp," the great communicator who "always talked a good game," but who practiced a national security policy of "terminal witlessness."
Finally - in the book's dominant metaphor - he was the singer of the Nightingale's Song. A young nightingale, it seems, cannot sing his beautiful song until he hears it first from another nightingale. But once he has heard his distinctive melody, he breaks into the nightingale's sophisticated tunes.
Ronald Reagan was the nightingale for a generation of men like )) McFarlane, North and Poindexter. He evoked in them a pride of country, a view of the Vietnam War as a "noble cause," a respect for men who did their duty. But, Timberg suggests, it was that song as well which drew from his aides the blundering of Iran-Contra.
Timberg tells his story in a breezy, sometimes overly colloquial prose: Oliver North has "the judgment of a wedge of cheddar cheese"; Poindexter "never had a clue"; the author imagines the whole crowd going "off to the pokey." There is too much clumsy foreshadowing: "an aura of predestination hovered over the staff"; "Secord and Bandar. Names to Remember."
But, such faults notwithstanding, Timberg has written a deeply-felt, thoroughly researched manifesto, a work that stirred this reader both to mirth and to indignation. It should find a wide audience of serious readers.
* J. Anthony Lukas is author of "The Barnyard Epithet and Other Obscenities: Notes on The Chicago Conspiracy Trial," "Don't Shoot-We are Your Children," "Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years" and "Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families." He earned a Pulitzer Prize for special local reporting on the New York Times in 1968 and another for general nonfiction in 1986. He covered Baltimore City Hall for The Sun from 1955 to 1962, and in 1986 was named "Literary Lion" by the New York Public Library.