FORT WAYNE – Though the televised hearings had begun two full months before, they hit their peak on July 7, 1987 – 25 years ago Saturday – when Lt. Col. Oliver North took the stand and turned everything on its head.
As the nation watched the Iran-Contra hearings, Steve Miller had more than a front-row seat: He was intimately involved.
Miller, then 24, was a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition.
He had Top Secret security clearance, worked behind sound-proof doors and special blinds to thwart prying eyes, rubbed shoulders with top government officials, and in July 1987 was at the heart of the drama it seemed all of America was watching.
It was bigger than huge, Miller said. Even though it was a lot of hours and a lot of work, it was, like, this is the next Watergate right here. Is Reagan going to end up losing the presidency over this?
But none of that – not the TV cameras, not his picture in the New York Times, not his work for the Senate Intelligence Committee later – none of it compares to goofing off in his Lakeside home with his wife, Jessica, and their children, Sam and Mary.
Ask him how often these moments, the ones here in Fort Wayne with his family, seem like the absolute pinnacle of his life, and his slate eyes turn from you to the sunshine outside the windows of the downtown Allen County Public Library where he works.
All the time, he says, gazing off into the sun. I get those thoughts all the time. They just do silly stuff all the time, and it cracks you up. They put on a CD and have a dance party. There’s no way any bad thing at that point can stick with you.
A bumpy start
Miller was 4 when his parents, Bob and Carolyn Miller, settled down in Fort Wayne. Bob was an executive with Medical Protective Co. and Carolyn was a ballet teacher, and they were both theater people.
After what he calls an unremarkable high school career at Northrop, Miller chose Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., for college, where he fell in love with political science. When he graduated in 1985, however, he was jobless, so he came back to Fort Wayne and worked in landscaping. As summer turned to winter and the landscaping work wound down, Miller got ahold of two friends from Lawrence who had gone to Washington, D.C., after graduation. One was working in journalism, and one was working in Sen. Gary Hart’s office.
I decided on a whim to go to D.C. and spread my résumé around for a couple of weeks and see what happened, Miller said.
So in January 1986, he re-enacted a familiar scene: He and his parents climbed the rickety steps to the platform at the Baker Street Train Station, where they stood in the snow and watched him leave for the big city.
The next day, he hit the Senate and House job placement offices, where he had to take typing tests, then put his résumé in a box with all the others – boxes that were overflowing.
It’s like, sigh, I guess I’ll add mine, Miller said. Then you look at the one on top, and it says the guy has a Ph.D. in government.
Things didn’t get much better: The very next day, the streets felt different.
I got the sense something was going on. People seemed strange, but I don’t know how to define it, he said. Then I ran into two Capitol Hill cops, and they were almost in tears. I was like, What’s going on?’
He later found out the space shuttle Challenger had exploded, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
Eventually, though, things turned around.
The friend who worked for Sen. Hart told him about a job opening there and put in a good word for him. He got the job – sorting mail.
Despite the lowly position, the job had big promise. The Colorado Democrat had done well running for president in 1984 and was expected to be his party’s nominee in 1988, when the White House would be up for grabs.
But as the end of 1986 approached and staff began leaving to join the presidential campaign, Miller decided to stay in D.C.
I felt like I had just got to D.C., he said. And I liked it there, so I thought maybe I’d stay.
After all, chances were good that Hart would be back and hiring hundreds of people to work in his presidential administration. As a former staffer, he would have a leg up on the competition.
Still, since Hart was retiring at the end of 1986 for the presidential run, Miller needed a job. What he found wasn’t much for his résumé, but it put him in intimate contact with every single big-wig in Washington: elevator operator in the Capitol.
That’s where the real stories are, he said. You wouldn’t believe.
To this day Miller doesn’t know why, but the woman at the job placement office apparently remembered him and thought of him when a new opening appeared.
I must have had the biggest Indiana boy, please help me’ look in town, he says, laughing. She called and said there’s a staff opening on the Iran-Contra committee. This was Friday afternoon, and when I said I could actually start Monday, she said, How about tomorrow?’
The next day, Miller reported to work for a job described as making copies and answering the phone.
I knew it was going to be much more than that, though, Miller said. And sure enough, it was.
Two days later, he was helping to read through thousands of pages of emails sent by Oliver North.
The 24-year-old hired to answer the phones and make copies was helping to look for evidence that the highest government officials had broken the law.
Just as the Iran-Contra committee hit its stride, Gary Hart’s presidential campaign spectacularly imploded over allegations of marital infidelity.
Miller had made the right choice.
World is watching
The Contras were a group of guerrilla fighters trying to overthrow the Communist government in Nicaragua. But they had also been linked to atrocities, including the murder, torture and rape of civilians, which led Congress to cut off all financial and military aid.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, terrorists linked to Iran were taking American hostages and attacking American embassies with truck bombs.
In 1985, however, Israel suggested that selling missiles to Iran would result in the freeing of seven hostages and better relations with Iran. President Ronald Reagan approved the sale, even though it violated American law on exporting weapons and violated both an arms embargo against Iran and stated American policy that we do not negotiate with terrorists. Money from the sales was then diverted to the Contras, again in violation of the law.
In November 1986, word of the ongoing enterprise leaked out, and within weeks, various investigations began. The next month, a special prosecutor was named to investigate the crimes that occurred. By the first week in January 1987, the House and Senate had set up committees to investigate. Miller signed on to work for the Senate version.
It was exciting and exhilarating, but also exhausting. They were very long days, Miller said. And everything ratcheted up when televised hearings began.
You run on adrenaline because you know the whole country is watching, he said. And you’re wondering, is the president going to be impeached over all this?
Adding to it all was the secrecy: Much of what they were looking at were national security documents detailing CIA operations and naming covert operatives.
You kind of sign your life away for top-secret security clearance, Miller said. And you know if you discuss this with someone, you’ll be breaking rocks at Leavenworth.
But when North took the stand, everything went up another notch because the decorated Marine somehow turned the hearings on their head.
What had been an investigation into crimes committed by and with the approval of the president suddenly became a question of how Congress dared to question the president’s efforts to free American hostages and fight communism in Central America. Overnight, the hearings became riveting television that everyone was watching.
It was frustrating because you’re finding all this wrongdoing, and then all the sudden North becomes a cult hero to half of America, Miller said. We had a good idea of what he and others had done, and then he starts testifying and he’s in his military uniform and teary eyed and all the sudden he was a hero, and we’re like, Wait a minute, he’s the bad guy here.’
And for a few, brief – and terrifying – seconds, it was Miller himself on the national stage.
When hearing participants would refer to a document, they would point the audience to big enlargements on easels on the side of the room. Committee staff took turns manning the easels, turning pages and using a pointer. One day, when North was on the stand, it was Miller’s turn to man the easel.
On the easel was the paragraph, approved by Congress and signed into law by the president, which made funding the Contras illegal.
Below it appeared Reagan’s signature.
The committee’s attorney, Arthur Liman, asked North if he recognized the signature. Miller obediently pointed to Reagan’s name.
North says, Yes, as all Americans should,’ Miller said. I’m sure I rolled my eyes.
But then came a question from one of the committee members, asking if the image on the easel was a composite. Had Reagan really signed his name just below that paragraph, or was that just one paragraph in a bill that could have been hundreds or thousands of pages long?
Suddenly, all of America, it seemed, was looking at Miller and the image on the easel.
Liman and everyone in this room was looking over at me, and I was afraid Liman was going to say, Steve? Is it a composite or not?’ Miller said. I was shaking in my boots.
At that moment, as Miller appears to be looking in panic to someone else for guidance, the photographer for the New York Times snapped his picture, immortalizing the scene. It turned out that the image was, in fact, a composite.
Miller not only kept that copy of the Times, but when the hearings were done, he kept that blown-up image from the easel, as well.
But eventually it peeled and wasn’t worth keeping, Miller said.
And eventually the hearings ended, the joint committee produced its report – the abridged version is nearly 500 pages – and life moved on.
Unlike Watergate, Iran-Contra ended with a fizzle, owing mainly to the fact that no evidence was found tying Reagan directly to the worst of the crimes and that those testifying before Congress had been granted immunity, so they couldn’t be prosecuted for what they revealed. Many of the convictions that were obtained were later overturned.
America moved on and forgot about it.
Miller moved on, too, taking a similar job with the Senate Intelligence Committee. Once again, he was privy to national secrets and working for the powerful, but the long days were wearing on him and by late 1989, he was heading home to Indiana, hoping for a job in state government. His mother suggested a job at the Allen County Public Library.
What really matters
It turned out to be a lot like D.C., only I was dealing with books instead of documents, and I was sharing information instead of protecting it, Miller said. I like sharing better.
He started out working part time, but soon was full time and then working on a master’s degree in library science. Eventually, he settled down into life in Fort Wayne, working and wondering if the best and brightest time of his life had already passed.
Then he met Jessica Rogers.
Mutual friends got them together at a cookout in 2002, and within days, he was asking her out. When he talks about it, he gets that faraway look in his eyes again.
We went to the Acme, he said. That’s our first date place. We just hit it off.
By 2004, they were getting married in their backyard; Sam was born in 2005 and Mary in 2007.
And at some point, between the diapers and work and housework and feeding a marriage and feeding a family, he realized that Iran-Contra hadn’t been the climax at all.
I’m very happy in my career choice, and I think it’s a good match for what I’m good at and what I enjoy, Miller said. Having time with the family is more important. That has more value to me than the career ladder. No one says, I wish I had spent more time at work.’
At a wedding shortly after the Iran-Contra committee ended, he was talking to a friend’s mother about his work and she was amazed.
I said to her, I hope I haven’t peaked already,’ and she said, You haven’t,’ he said. Now I know she was right.