Despite shocking testimony about the extent of the Reagan Administration’s covert aid to the rebels of Nicaragua, so far the Congressional committee investigating the Iran-contra scandal has drawn little blood. That’s likely to change this week when brainy, controversial Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, 39, appears before the committee. The lawmakers on Capitol Hill are sharpening their knives. Above the hiss of steel on stone, they talk with barely concealed pleasure about the reception the committee is planning for him. “He’s got some explaining to do,” says Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.). “I think he’s in big trouble,” adds Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.). “Everything I hear around here from anybody, Democratic or Republican,” confides one Republican aide, “says that Abrams is finished.”
Many legislators fervently hope so. Abrams’ aloof manner—which some on Capitol Hill see as arrogance—has angered Congress nearly as much as his apparent role in channeling money and supplies to the contras. Already, in testimony by other witnesses, his name has been linked to the air resupply operation that ended up with mercenary Eugene Hasenfus being shot out of the sky last year, to the solicitation of $10 million in “humanitarian aid” from the Sultan of Brunei and to the construction of a secret airfield in Costa Rica.
Often when Abrams has been called on the carpet during the past three years, he has claimed either ignorance or fuzzy knowledge of the incident at hand. When confronted with irrefutable evidence, he has backtracked, waffled, pleaded faulty memory or an imperfect understanding of the question. At one hearing Rep. Gejdenson became so infuriated by Abrams’ equivocating that he asked to have the assistant secretary placed under oath. A few months later when a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked about the Sultan of Brunei, Abrams said, “You can badger me all you want. If I don’t remember, I don’t remember.” When his solicitation of the Sultan later became public knowledge, the assistant secretary apologized to the Senate committee, and its then chairman, Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) said publicly, “I wouldn’t trust Elliott Abrams any further than I could throw Oliver North.” Members of Congress, as their whetstones whisper, are eager to get Abrams on TV and confront him with such prevarications.
Interestingly, Abrams, a thorough-going Reaganite, grew up in a liberal household in Queens, N.Y., the son of an immigration lawyer and a teacher. Elliott attended a small, progressive high school in Greenwich Village that numbers among its alumna ’60s radicals Kathy Boudin (the convicted Weatherman bomber) and Angela Davis. Yet his was always more a ’50s sensibility. “Abrams’ hair was about the same length it is now, which, for the time, was extremely short,” recalls Steven Kelman, his roommate at Harvard in the late ’60s and now a professor of government there. “Elliott was the only person I knew who threw his blue jeans out when they started to fade.”
In college, Abrams was an old-line Democrat, outraged by student militancy. While other undergraduates stormed the administration building and rallied to Gene McCarthy, Abrams supported Hubert Humphrey. Three years later, after graduating from Harvard Law School, studying at the London School of Economics and working briefly at a New York law firm, Abrams joined Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s staff. In 1977 Abrams became chief of staff for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). And in 1980 he took another symbolic step to the right when he married Rachel Decter, whose mother, Midge Decter, and stepfather, Norman Podhoretz, are the reigning neo-conservative couple of America’s literati. Podhoretz declared it “the closest thing to the arranged marriage that the modern world allowed,” and Rachel recently told the Washington Post, “I instantly knew I wanted to marry Elliott. He was incredibly familiar—sort of like, well, home.”
A year later Elliott, who had been a “Democrat for Reagan,” officially became a Republican. That January, at 33, he also became Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations—the youngest Assistant Secretary of State in this century. At the time even Sen. Dodd was impressed by his “intelligence and commitment.” But that was before Abrams became embroiled in U.S. Central American policy and its tangled allegations of rebel atrocities, covert action and back-room deals. Now even longtime foe Aryeh Neier—director of the human rights group Americas Watch, who says “the people I know have been referring to Abrams as Pinocchio for years”—is astonished at the depth of animosity toward him on Capitol Hill. “I have rarely seen people react with so much relish to somebody’s downfall,” he says. “I would not have expected to feel a measure of sympathy for him. But I do.”