Opaque Figure in Iran Drama : Clues to Poindexter Found in Early Life
John M. Poindexter was a teen-ager, working at the movie theater in the small Midwestern town where he grew up. Someone had stolen $57 from his uncle’s funeral home, and John’s cousins and their friends talked endlessly of the missing money.
Then one day, under a theater seat where a young friend of one of his cousins had been sitting, John found a torn bill he recognized as part of the stolen money. Confronted with the evidence, the boy admitted the theft and pledged to pay it back. John’s father and uncle told John Poindexter not to tell anyone.
He did what he was told. He kept the secret for more than 30 years, until his uncle divulged it.
Man in Charge of Secrets
For 11 months and 23 days as national security adviser to President Reagan, John Marlan Poindexter was the highest White House official known to have been involved in the clandestine diversion of Iranian arms sales profits to the Nicaraguan contras in defiance of a congressional ban. From late 1985 to late 1986, the 50-year-old rear admiral was the man in charge of the secrets.
On a stage dominated by dramatic figures--swashbuckling Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the glamorous Fawn Hall, arms merchants and Mideastern politicians worthy of the Arabian Nights--the stolid, pipe-smoking Poindexter is an opaque figure.
Who is he? What drove him and shaped his actions? Would Poindexter, whose career was marked by meticulous attention to rules, have insisted on orders from his commander in chief before directing such an operation? Or might he have followed his own lifelong ideas of loyalty? Did he shield the President--"Maybe he thought he was being, in some way, protective of me,” as Reagan put it last week--while pressing ahead with what he thought Reagan wanted?
For his own part, Poindexter has steadfastly refused to discuss any aspect of the affair. And next month, when he testifies under a limited grant of immunity from prosecution before the special congressional investigating committees that begin hearings Tuesday, he is expected to concentrate on the details of his official role in the now-discredited covert operations.
To glimpse the essence of Poindexter himself, therefore, it is necessary to glean the clues offered by his earlier life--by the recollections of family, friends and associates who observed him as a boy, at the U.S. Naval Academy, at sea and, finally, at the White House.
Often in No. 2 Spot
He excelled at organization, often in the No. 2 spot. He learned judgment from the military--a tightknit world with standards and a logic of its own, a world far removed from politics or public relations.
Fastidious in Work
Order is important to Poindexter: All his life, he seems to have made strong efforts to control his environment, to minimize conflict. He is careful, fastidious in work and personal habits.
“He is the only man I have ever seen put on a pair of trousers without letting the pants touch the floor,” recalls a former naval aide.
On one known occasion before joining the White House staff, he chose risk. It was an exception.
At Annapolis, Md., he once suggested that he and his roommates climb the wall surrounding the U.S. Naval Academy, buy some beer and meet some girls. For most midshipmen, that might not have seemed so daring. But Poindexter was a six-striper, a brigade commander, and he had a lot to lose if he was caught. He wasn’t.
He is fair. He treats others with kindness. In his personal relations, he rarely manipulates. He doesn’t double-cross. He expects the same of others.
But, as Reagan’s national security adviser, he also lied to keep secrets.
At the White House, he congratulated North for deceiving a congressional committee about his work with the contras. Poindexter himself misled Congress and other Administration officials to keep the Iranian arms sales secret.
Works Best Alone
By inclination and personality, those who know him say, he prefers to be second in line rather than first. He achieves under others’ names. He works best alone. He is a staff man.
But a retired vice admiral recalls a troubling conversation just before Poindexter became national security adviser in his fourth year at the White House.
“He said it was very difficult working with some of those people (at the White House) and some of the times you have to bypass people . . . " remembers retired Vice Adm. M. Staser Holcomb. “I thought it was terrible. His judgment was not the same on issues as it had been in the Navy.”
As a child, propriety was important to John Poindexter.
He grew up in Odon, Ind., a solidly Protestant community of small farmers, Amish families, evangelical churchgoers and factory workers. Previous generations of Poindexters had built reputations as shrewd businessmen and leaders. Middle class in their own eyes, the Poindexters nevertheless were Odon’s elite.
John was the eldest of four children. His mother, Ellen Poindexter, who still lives in Indiana and runs a small antique store, says he inherited her dark hair, brown eyes and shyness. Others say he also inherited her intelligence. She was a housewife who collected antique glassware, deferred to her husband and made her home popular to John’s friends by always serving lemonade when they came around. But she had abilities beyond that and later became a successful businesswoman.
Her late husband, Marlan Poindexter, a Republican like herself, was president of the local bank but “a salesman” at heart, Mrs. Poindexter says. Odon residents remember him as a strait-laced businessman who knew everyone’s financial secrets and made loans with the utmost reluctance. Marlan Poindexter had wanted to be a doctor but dropped out of college after a year. He told his quiet, studious son that he should aim for West Point.
When John and his friends planned camping trips, John made up the list of supplies to take while the other boys schemed about the fun ahead. Once out of town, he scanned the sites for poison oak before the others made camp. He kept track of the time so that no one would miss curfew.
“John wasn’t a leader really,” recalls his cousin and fellow camper, Richard Poindexter, 54. “Really he wasn’t. He was a doer . . . . He was an organizer. You didn’t operate without him because you checked with him to make sure you could do it.”
He remembers John as the kid who followed the rules. If the other boys went skinny-dipping, he says, John would wear his trunks.
John managed the town’s movie theater, the Ritz, the way his father managed the bank. When his cousin and his friends acted up, he kicked them out. Richard Poindexter remembers buying tickets from his cousin, four years his junior. “Now go in, sit down and behave yourself,” the small, slim Poindexter would tell his older cousin.
‘Never a Little Boy’
“I told him one time he was never a little boy,” says his mother. “He was born an old man . . . . He was not mischievous, as some boys are. He took life seriously. He was always interested in doing something constructive.”
Ever content to work alone, John built a darkroom in their home and developed his own photographs. “He was always yelling when we opened the door,” his mother remembers.
His cousin recalls that John assembled a two-way radio system to talk with people inside the house from the tool shed, where he labored over gadgets. At school, if an electrical outlet did not work or something needed fixing, the teachers would call for John.
He was the smartest boy in the class. Math was his best subject, English his weakest. As an Eagle Scout, he visited science fairs at local colleges. Back in Odon, he duplicated the science displays he had seen. Some of his fellow high school classmates remember these demonstrations of science as magic tricks.
He did not play competitive sports or run for school offices. He participated in school plays, not as the star but behind the scenes. He had a steady girlfriend, the daughter of an evangelical minister.
His classmates say he minded his own business and never gossiped. They liked him. He was handsome as well as smart. The most critical recollection of him comes from a former classmate who was on the wilder side. “To me,” this classmate says, “he was boring.”
He fulfilled his father’s wishes by deciding to go to college at a service academy. But he chose the Naval Academy in Annapolis. His high school classmates predicted in the yearbook that he would one day be a four-star admiral. His father was proud. “It was macho enough for him,” says Ellen Poindexter.
The late Indiana Sen. Homer E. Capehart knew the family and nominated John for Annapolis. He was accepted. He gave up a scholarship to Purdue and headed for the Naval Academy. His father regularly sent the senator reports of John’s grades: straight A’s.
At the academy, John Poindexter is remembered as a “regular guy.”
His brains earned him respect, admiration and leadership posts. But among his peers he went along with the group. He studied no more than most of his classmates, even less than some. He was low-key, self-effacing and friendly.
But he could focus. He did what was required.
“He’s intense when it’s time to be intense,” recalls Bill Hemingway, one of his academy roommates. “One minute he’s laughing and joking with you and then it’s 8 o’clock and it’s time to study and the guy opens the book and gets totally immersed in it.”
John Robbins, another roommate, says he and the two others who shared Poindexter’s room enjoyed playing pranks on him. Shortly after he started smoking a pipe, his roommates dropped shaved rubber into it. They put a 45-rpm record in the envelope that contained Poindexter’s star-finder disk used for navigation, a switch Poindexter discovered only in the middle of an examination. Robbins says he took pranks good-naturedly and rarely, if ever, retaliated.
He was more likely to get angry when his roommates broke academy rules, particularly when they were untidy: That could cost him points during inspections. Personal neatness counted for much at the academy, and Poindexter took great pride in his uniform as well as his room. Robbins still pictures him with a lint brush in his hand.
His No. 1 academic ranking gave Poindexter wide recognition and enormous prestige.
“He wasn’t a big man, and he wasn’t a barking man,” Robbins says. “He wasn’t the kind of guy who could stand up in front of people and command respect just from his stature and his tone. He got respect just from the fact you knew the guy was smart and you knew he knew what he was doing.”
Friends Borrowed Notes
Fellow students regularly sought him out for help in their studies; he always obliged. His friends borrowed his meticulous, well-organized class notes before exams.
In the electrical engineering laboratory, all eyes followed Poindexter. His fellow students connived to place him in a position at the test benches where they could all see him.
“When his right arm would move, everybody’s right arm would move,” recalls Hemingway. “His classmates looked to John for the solution, a lot of times more than to the professor.”
He played only intramural squash, and his more athletic roommates teased him that his sport was the academy debating club. It was during a debate that he met Linda Goodwin, a student at the University of Maryland. His friends were surprised at the match. She was his opposite: outgoing, vivacious, even hilarious at times. He fell deeply in love. They married after graduation and had five sons.
McFarlane Was a Junior
Poindexter graduated first in the class of 1958, when Robert C. McFarlane, who preceded Poindexter as Reagan’s national security adviser, was still a junior at the academy. President Dwight D. Eisenhower handed Poindexter his diploma.
He was commissioned an ensign and assigned to the Holder, a destroyer in the Atlantic fleet. The job was a good first assignment. It demanded technical knowledge of electronics. In August, 1959, the Navy awarded him a prestigious Burke scholarship to go to graduate school at Caltech.
Amid the brilliant scientists and their students at Caltech, Poindexter did not impress. At the Naval Academy, task-oriented technicians could shine; the Pasadena school emphasized creative science.
Prof. Felix Boehm, one of his advisers at Caltech, remembers him as an “average student,” a reserved, “rather proper” young man.
“He didn’t have a great deal of enthusiasm for his work,” as Boehm remembers it. “I like students to generate their own problems. He just did his work as a duty, as an assignment, as a military man does his duty. He didn’t have the fire built in him to search for the truth, to do science because he is fascinated by science . . . .
“He didn’t give me the impression that he would be a great man in the future . . . . He just didn’t strike me as a man who was outstanding in his judgment or overall perspective,” Boehm said recently.
It was the dawn of the hippie era, but campus radicalism had not yet taken hold.
“At Caltech things were relatively quiet, and even there Poindexter was the clean-cut type,” remembers Milton Clauser, a physicist and classmate of Poindexter.
The graduate students and their professors met socially in a cafeteria known as “the Greasy Spoon.” They talked of world affairs, communism, the Soviet Union.
Poindexter regularly joined the group but rarely offered personal opinions. If he expressed a view, it was generally conservative. He struck Boehm as “a fellow who tried to avoid conflict . . . tried not to get involved.” Clauser remembers him as “careful.”
Poindexter received his doctorate in nuclear physics in 1964. His dissertation, “Electronic Shielding by Closed Shells in Thulium Compounds,” was a study of the properties of thulium, a rare-earth metal.
As a naval officer, Poindexter showed excellent technical abilities, a uniform calmness of temper and an ability to carry out orders. He served a series of two- to three-year hitches, going from technical jobs at sea to staff assistant jobs in Washington.
After two years aboard two destroyers, where he worked in engineering positions, Poindexter took his first staff assignment in Washington: He became an assistant to an assistant secretary of defense in 1966 under Secretary Robert S. McNamara, joining a group widely known as the Whiz Kids. They were men of advanced education brought together to analyze weapons systems and training programs. They included civilians and members of each branch of the armed services.
Poindexter received a service medal for his studies of the manpower needs of the military.
Retired Rear Adm. Clarence Hill Jr., who was also a member of the staff, remembers Poindexter--by then a lieutenant commander--as a “typical academic pipe smoker,” who enjoyed tackling the kinds of problems that required individual concentration.
His behavior in that period makes it hard for Hill to believe that later, at the White House, he would not keep Reagan informed.
“He was not as aggressive as I was in getting something done to the point of antagonizing people,” remembers Hill, who now runs Poindexter’s legal defense fund. “He was far more conscious of keeping people cut in (informed) to smooth the way . . . . John was far more careful to cover all the bases in any kind of a decision or anything he worked on so that it was fully thought out. He had a great deal of patience . . . .
“There was no stone left unturned to keep the right people informed.”
In 1969, Poindexter returned to sea as second in command of a destroyer. Two years later, he was back in Washington. He served as administrative aide to three secretaries of the Navy.
One of them, John H. Chafee, now a Republican U.S. senator from Rhode Island, remembers Poindexter as a loyal, dedicated assistant who never exceeded his authority.
‘Out of Character’
“It surprised me that he is in the position where it is suggested that he went way beyond his authority,” Chafee says. “That, to me, is out of character.”
As an aide, Poindexter kept track of all classified information, correspondence and other communications. He was discreet.
“He’s a loyalist,” Chafee says, “and when he embarks on a project, he gets the position from his commanding officers and follows out on it with vigor and enthusiasm. But calmness. That’s a characteristic you think of when you think of John . . . . He’s not an excitable type.”
Retired Vice Adm. Thor Hanson, who was Chafee’s naval aide and executive assistant from 1970 to 1972, says: “In all the time I knew him, he was not a wild, independent operator . . . . He is a very reasoned, thoughtful person.
“He is also, in my opinion, a consummate staff officer. He would not have done something as a staff officer unless he absolutely believed his boss wanted it done.”
However, Hanson qualifies this impression: “That doesn’t mean that he would never do anything unless his boss absolutely told him to do it.”
Hanson remembers Poindexter as “more analytical than creative.” Except when it came to computers. “When he came to the secretary’s office, we had an antiquated system of correspondence, and John put it all on computer and made it work like a charm.”
Poindexter received his highest naval citation for his work as administrative assistant. It was the Legion of Merit, the seventh-highest of the 18 medals given by the Navy. It was for his “processing” of correspondence and his computer work.
In 1974, he assumed command of the England, a guided missile cruiser in the Pacific. He was a quiet commander. He did not bark orders; he gave them in the same tone in which he said, “Good morning.” Some subordinates unfamiliar with him may have perceived a “certain lack of assertiveness,” recalls a former naval aide.
If he had a weakness, says this admiring aide, it may have been that he did not verbally express appreciation very well. He was not demonstrative.
Liked Thinking Things Over
He did not make snap decisions either, unless he had to. He liked to think things over before deciding, this aide recalls.
One of the two most noted achievements of his sea duty at this time was a computer program he wrote to manage the overhaul of the cruiser.
The second was his handling of a radar problem. The cruiser’s radar system broke down shortly before a naval exercise that depended on it. Confounded, the radar experts could not figure out what was wrong. On the night before the exercise, Poindexter borrowed the manual. He stayed up all night reading it.
The next morning, he got up and fixed the radar.
He was good at following manuals, assembling things from kits. When the cruiser docked in San Diego, he assembled a radio-controlled model airplane with a 6-foot wingspan for his sons. He took his boys to a cliff in La Jolla and flew the plane, his former aide says.
Built Furniture in Basement
He had already assembled a television set from a kit. Years later, he would build furniture alone in his basement at home and install a computer in his car.
He returned to Washington in 1976 to be executive assistant to Adm. J. L. Holloway III, then chief of naval operations. Holloway compares Poindexter’s post to that of the law clerk for the chief justice of the Supreme Court. “He’s the guy who knows everything the CNO knows because there has to be more than one person with all the secrets,” Holloway says.
Retired Adm. Sylvester (Bob) Foley, now an assistant energy secretary, recalls that Poindexter “was quiet as a church mouse” in serving Holloway: “He kept his counsel.”
Poindexter had to convey messages between Holloway and others. Holloway says Poindexter rarely volunteered his own opinions or slanted messages.
“With John Poindexter, he not only gave the message succinctly, straightforwardly, but he conveyed the sense the person wanted without distorting it,” Holloway remembers. “He was a very honest transmitter of what senior people wanted to convey.”
Would Bite His Pipe
An aide recalls that Poindexter’s calm demeanor became ruffled only when order was interrupted. If someone needed to reschedule Holloway’s appointments at the last minute, Poindexter would not be pleased. Instead of calmly puffing on his pipe, he would bite on it, clenching his teeth. This is how the aide knew when his boss was displeased.
He moved to a high-ranking sea assignment in 1978. A captain, he commanded a destroyer squadron deployed to the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean and South Pacific, serving as battle group anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare commander.
“He loved the sea,” recalls his mother. When he was at port in San Diego, he invited her and his wife to dine with him in his cabin aboard the flagship of the squadron.
“He was very proud,” she remembers.
In 1980, he was promoted to rear admiral. He went to Pensacola, Fla., serving as second in charge of the naval education and training command. That assignment lasted only a year; it was time for a greater challenge.
He began work at the White House as a military assistant on the National Security Council staff in June, 1981, when Richard V. Allen headed the staff as Reagan’s national security adviser. William P. Clark succeeded Allen in January, 1982, and resigned the following October. McFarlane was named national security adviser and chose Poindexter as his deputy.
McFarlane, an Annapolis product himself, never forgot that Poindexter had graduated No. 1 from the Naval Academy. Years later, he was still impressed. The two men liked each other and worked well together, former NSC staff members say.
“John did not impress you with his in-depth knowledge of international relations, but he was a quick study,” remembers a former NSC staff member. “So as long as McFarlane was there, it didn’t matter.”
Although Iran-contra investigators have been unable to find notes of key meetings at which Poindexter was the official note taker, Poindexter is remembered as an avid note taker while he was McFarlane’s deputy.
At meetings or at his desk, Poindexter always had a black imitation-leather notebook in front of him and different colored pens, recalls Geoffrey Kemp, who at the time was the NSC’s senior adviser on the Middle East. Poindexter apparently used different colors of ink, usually red and blue, for different subjects.
“He had this very neat, small handwriting,” Kemp remembers. “McFarlane had large rounded letters stretched all over the paper.”
Poindexter was accessible to staff members. But he would become visibly irritable at bad news, one of them remembers. “His bark was worse than his bite,” this former staff member recalls. “You always knew where you stood with John, whereas with McFarlane it was quite a different matter.”
On his desk, Poindexter kept a vertical divider where he would put his “action folder” containing papers on the most pressing issues. He never removed one file without first putting back the one before him. His desk was always clean.
“John’s forte was paper flow,” remembers Kemp. “He was a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat.”
Kemp enjoyed sitting in Poindexter’s office, “one of the few civilized offices left in Washington.” It was neat, the smell of his pipe was pleasant and classical music played from a radio. “We never knew whether it was to mask conversation because of the Russians or to satisfy his passion for Bach,” Kemp says.
An aide who interviewed with Poindexter for a job was struck by his excellent memory. The aide had met him once, briefly, 10 years earlier. “I was as low in the bowels of the Pentagon as you can get,” the staff member says of their first meeting. “But when I went over to the interview for the job at the NSC, he remembered having met me.”
Reagan promoted Poindexter to vice admiral in May, 1985. Poindexter told a former naval colleague at about this time that he had turned down command of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean, a plum assignment. “The President asked him to stay on another year for continuity and he said, ‘Sure, I’ll stay on another year,’ ” says Hanson, his former Navy colleague.
Poindexter did not forget his old Navy friends. When he got the President’s box at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, he invited Hanson and his wife to share it with him and Linda. Hanson, who had just recovered from a serious illness, was touched. He was about to retire from the Navy and remembers thinking that Poindexter could have used the box to garner points with someone who could have helped him professionally.
In October, 1985, Poindexter managed the successful interception of the EgyptAir plane carrying hijackers of the Achille Lauro. He had been cool and efficient.
President Reagan complimented him.
“I salute the admiral,” said Reagan, standing at attention and putting his hand to his forehead when he saw Poindexter the next day.
Poindexter proudly related the episode to a staff member. But he told the staff member, who wanted to release the remark to the press, to doctor it a little first.
“Tell them the President said, ‘I salute the Navy,’ ” Poindexter advised.
He clashed at times with Oliver North, his emotional and frenzied aide who in personality was Poindexter’s opposite, two former NSC colleagues say. Poindexter found North too emotional and worried he would slip and divulge secret operations.
“Ollie was McFarlane’s man, not Poindexter’s man,” one of their colleagues says. “Poindexter, the deputy, felt that Ollie was going off the reservation, and then Ollie would go around him to Bud,” remembers the other. This colleague says North confided that he feared Poindexter would try to get him fired.
In December, 1985, McFarlane talked about resigning. His relations with White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan were tense. McFarlane’s independence rankled; McFarlane had friends in the news media and in Congress, and he fiercely guarded his right to meet privately with the President.
But McFarlane had threatened to quit before, and many at the NSC, including Poindexter, believed he would stay on. “I remember John saying, ‘I don’t think he is going to resign,’ ” a former Administration official says. “ ‘I hope we’re over the hump.’ ”
McFarlane did resign, and he recommended Poindexter as his successor.
Poindexter got the top job, moving into the office made famous by Henry A. Kissinger. Former aides say Poindexter’s style suited Regan. Poindexter had no constituency in Congress to give him independent clout. He did not like being the center of attention and would not try to steal the spotlight.
He arrived at the White House every day at 7 a.m. and ate breakfast at a small corner table in his office. He liked to be left alone to read cables and intelligence reports and to look at the White House news summary. He was not an avid newspaper reader. An aide recalled that he often seemed not even to have read stories about himself.
‘Not a News Junkie’
“He was probably less influenced by what appeared in the press than anybody I have ever known,” says former NSC executive secretary Rodney McDaniel. “He would quickly glance at the newspapers, but he was not a news junkie the way most people in Washington are.”
Poindexter told associates that he knew he lacked experience with the news media and Congress, both crucial to the workings of Washington. “However, he said many times that there are only so many hours in the week,” says a former Administration official.
As McFarlane’s deputy, he had enraged the news media by calling reports of an impending invasion of Grenada “preposterous.” His failure to respond, while national security adviser, to most news media requests for interviews strained his press relations even more.
White House press officers frequently asked him to sit down with reporters for background interviews, a former staff member says. He usually declined but permitted other members of his staff to do so.
“He was turned off by some members of the White House press corps who he felt were too interested in gossipy kinds of things and didn’t take the time to study the issues,” McDaniel says.
When Poindexter consented to a rare interview, it was not always successful.
Hanson recalls being stunned at Poindexter’s appearance on a television interview show. The man he knew as warm and droll “looked incredibly serious and icy. I thought to myself, this is not really John.”
Poindexter gave more to Congress, but--in the view of some members--not enough. McDaniel estimates Poindexter devoted 10% to 15% of his week to Congress.
“He didn’t love it or he didn’t hate it,” McDaniel says. “His notion was that it was time-consuming. You had to make your point two or three times, and you had to keep making it over and over again because there are so many individuals who are important that you have to talk to. So I think that chafed him a little bit--the amount of time you had to take.”
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says he cannot recall ever seeing Poindexter as national security adviser on Capitol Hill. Other national security advisers had made it a point to have breakfast or lunch with committee members. Berman says he believes Poindexter confined himself to associating only with “ideological kindreds.”
Refused to Make Deals
A Republican source in the Senate recalls several meetings at which Poindexter was present. But his presence did not satisfy members. The source says Poindexter refused to make deals. He gave the impression that he lacked the authority to make decisions without checking first with the White House.
“He would say, ‘I’ll have to check this with the President,’ rather than making the decision himself,” the source says.
His manner also offended some members. He puffed on his pipe, listened quietly to the members, nodded occasionally, but spoke only when asked a question. He made the members feel as if their concerns were parochial.
“He did not do a lot of stroking,” says the source. “He was low-key and quiet to the point of appearing smug. He gave the impression that he was there to reveal the truth to you rather than to deal with you.”
Aura Put People Off
This source liked Poindexter personally. He was friendly and always remembered the names of aides. “I think his heart was in the right place,” the source says. “And I think his words were more flexible and effective than his appearance. Unfortunately, a lot of people were put off by the aura he gave off.”
Even among his staff members, “he played things close to the vest,” one of them recalls.
Kenneth L. Adelman, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, says Poindexter was “very secretive” and tried to stifle debate on major policy questions. “I found him on big issues all too eager to talk one-on-one about an issue and then to relate what people said about the issue, instead of getting everyone in the same room to discuss something.”
During meetings with the President, Poindexter often tried to cut off Adelman when he tried to object to a negotiating policy. “He would say, ‘No, that’s been decided,’ ” Adelman recalls.
But Adelman liked him personally. “He doesn’t try to do harm to anybody, belittle anybody,” Adelman says. “There is no meanness in him.”
Richard Poindexter recalls his cousin’s telling him that he believed Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev was a “true Russian” who posed a danger to the United States. “Every time Gorbachev was around John, he would needle him about being the head of the military-industrial complex,” Richard Poindexter remembers his cousin as saying.
Poindexter kept his naval commission when he became national security adviser and continued to socialize with other Navy men. McDaniel, his secretary, was a retired naval officer, and the NSC under Poindexter accumulated other aides from the Navy.
He even used his influence to help block a recommendation by Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. for chief of naval operations, naval sources say. Poindexter recommended the President appoint his friend, Adm. Carlisle A. H. Trost, instead of Lehman’s nominee. Trost got the job.
If he confided in anyone, says a former NSC staff member, it was Don Fortier, his deputy, “a brilliant gadfly who was into all sorts of different subjects, had a very good strategic mind but was totally disorganized.”
‘Had the Neatest Desk’
The two men complemented each other. “Poindexter was an engineer, not a political thinker,” the former staff member says. “Fortier’s desk was like an avalanche waiting to happen. John had the neatest desk I have ever seen in my life.”
But only months after Poindexter took over, Fortier discovered he had cancer. He had to be away from the office more and more. He died during Poindexter’s ninth month as national security adviser.
The arms sales to Iran that had begun under McFarlane continued under Poindexter. Poindexter embraced the policy.
A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee says he misled other Administration officials to protect the sales. He told an unidentified ambassador in April of last year that there was “only a small shred of truth” to whisperings in the diplomatic community that the White House had approved arms sales to Iran, the committee reports. He also lied to Secretary of State George P. Shultz, the committee says, telling him the shipments had been stopped.
‘What the President Wanted’
Efforts to supply the contras also continued under Poindexter, and North retained prime responsibility for the secret operation. Messages show the fired aide regularly informed Poindexter of his efforts to assist private fund-raising for the contras. Poindexter encouraged these activities “because this was what the President wanted,” says a former Administration official.
But he worried about secrecy. He repeatedly told North to tell no one of his work.
On Nov. 3, 1986, a Beirut magazine published a fateful story describing the Administration’s arms sales to Iran. A furor erupted and two weeks later Reagan acknowledged an 18-month “secret diplomatic initiative” involving arms shipments.
Controversy over the arms sales grew. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III asked Poindexter for a chronology of the arms sales. The chronology, prepared by North and approved by Poindexter, contained numerous omissions and lies.
On Saturday, Nov. 22, Meese and his aides discovered a document that indicated profits from the arms sales had been diverted to the contras.
Hemingway, one of Poindexter’s roommates at Annapolis, called Poindexter at home that day.
“I’ve been loyal to the President,” Hemingway says Poindexter told him. “I know he is not going to fire me, and I am not going to resign.”
On Monday, however, Meese met with Poindexter for about 10 minutes. Meese told him he had seen the document. According to Meese, Poindexter said he had received “enough hints” from North to know money was being diverted to the contras and did not inquire into the diversion. Meese asked him if he had told anyone about the diversion. Poindexter, Meese says, replied that he had not. He said he knew he probably would have to resign.
On Tuesday, Nov. 25, Regan went to Poindexter’s office. Poindexter was eating breakfast. Regan told him he should be prepared to resign when he met with the President later that morning.
Poindexter paused. He put down his fork, patted his mouth with his napkin and slowly folded it before he replied. He told Regan he had assumed he would have to go.
Regan told investigators he had asked Poindexter how he could have been so negligent. Poindexter, Regan said, replied he had felt sorry for the contras and wanted to help them.
Reagan announced Poindexter’s resignation and the firing of North that day.
Two days later, on Thanksgiving morning, Vice Adm. James R. Hogg, director of naval warfare, telephoned Poindexter at home. He and his family were about to leave for his brother’s house in Maryland.
“I’m discouraged and tired,” Poindexter told him. “I need some rest. With some rest, I’ll have a better perspective.”
A few days later, colleagues gave him a champagne going-away party. Neither North nor McFarlane attended.
Poindexter returned to the Navy in a planning job. He worked directly for Trost, the man whose appointment Poindexter had engineered at the White House.
On Dec. 3, Poindexter appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee and invoked his Fifth Amendment right against possible self-incrimination. He refused to answer questions about the Iran-contra scandal.
(Congressional investigators interviewed Poindexter on Saturday as they prepared for the start of public testimony into the scandal, sources told the Associated Press.
(Poindexter, who is cooperating with investigators under an agreement providing limited immunity from prosecution, met in the Senate’s Hart Office Building with counsel to the House and Senate committees investigating the scandal, the news service said.
(Under terms of an agreement with independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, the investigators were allowed to meet with Poindexter no earlier than Saturday and only under conditions of secrecy.)
Poindexter’s wife, Linda, was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church last December. He was joyous. At the service, he read from the Bible. He chose a section from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
“Some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and some teachers, to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ . . . so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles.”
Three months after that ceremony, Poindexter lost one of his three Navy stars. To remain a vice admiral, he would have had to be assigned to a three-star job. That would have required a presidential appointment and reconfirmation by the Senate, an unlikely prospect in the wake of the scandal. He accepted demotion to rear admiral rather than retire.
The demotion was a blow.
But he told his family and friends he was “fine.” He said they should not worry. He attended social gatherings with former White House friends and Navy colleagues.
His mother believes the truth will vindicate her son, and she hopes he tells it to the congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra scandal.
“No President,” she says, “is worth sacrificing one man’s honor.”
‘I told him one time he was never a little boy. He was born an old man. . . . He was not mischievous, as some boys are. He took life seriously. He was always interested in doing something constructive.’