In 1987, fresh out of Harvard Law School, Jeffrey Toobin landed a job with Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor investigating the Iran-contra scandal. Toobin’s engaging Opening Arguments describes the education of a young lawyer — and the public drama of his first case, United States v. Oliver North.
Despite a handful of tidbits about CIA bribery in Costa Rica and what Toobin characterizes as then Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams’ narrow escape from prosecution, the value of Toobin’s story lies in its description of the obstacles that Walsh’s team faced. In the North trial, documents made public in the press often could not be admitted as evidence, on the grounds that they were still officially ”classified.” And Congress, ”with its precipitous immunity grants and vacuous hearings,” as Toobin acidly writes, further complicated the logistics of introducing admissable evidence. In the end, he says convincingly, it’s futile to use ”the criminal process to expose or correct governmental misdeeds.”
Walsh’s office made a sustained and well-publicized effort to block the publication of Opening Arguments. It’s hard for an outsider to see why. Though undeniably indiscreet and sometimes self-serving, the young lawyer’s memoir seems a sincere effort to show ordinary citizens how justice is done (and left undone) in America. B