WASHINGTON - Head cocked earnestly to one side, eyebrows knit, mouth pursed, former President Reagan spent eight hours of testimony claiming to know less about his administration's Iran-contra scandal than do millions of average citizens.
Billed as the key witness in the Iran-contra trial of his former national security adviser, retired Rear Adm. John Poindexter, Reagan said he did not authorize Poindexter to mislead Congress, contradicting Poindexter's argument that Reagan knew of and authorized his activities.
But aside from that recollection, the former president professed an ignorance of the events and personalities in the affair.
The words ``I don't remember'' or their equivalents occurred at least 124 times in his eight hours of testimony. The lapses in memory ranged from the identity of Rep. Lee Hamilton, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee during several of the key years of Reagan's presidency, to the central conclusions of the Tower Commission, which Reagan appointed to investigate the Iran-contra affair.
Reagan, now 79, also didn't remember that Robert McFarlane, who served as his national security adviser, had pleaded guilty to a charge of withholding information from Congress.
Reagan's memory lapses, however, never occurred on answers that bolstered his longstanding position that he, himself, had done nothing wrong. Repeatedly, he emphasized that while he might not be able to recall the names of the subordinates he gave instructions to - even at Cabinet rank - he recalled clearly the content of the instructions: ``Stay within the law.''
If the former president often could not remember key events, he came well-armed with statistics to explain why things were hard to remember. He had accumulated some 50 million papers, he said several times, and he had met with 400 foreign leaders while in office.
Though he admitted a total blank on some events, Reagan revealed a vivid memory for other incidents, such as a telephone call to the president of Honduras about helping the contras.
Regarding the Iran-contra affair, Reagan said:
-- As far as he was concerned, there is no evidence that profits from illegal arms sales to Iran were diverted to help the Nicaraguan contra rebels. However, congressional hearings, the Tower Commission report and two criminal trials, all of which documented the diversion.
-- The sale of arms to Iran did not go to the government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini but to moderate anti-terrorist factions in Iran, and the arms shipments were not an exchange for hostages in Lebanon but a sign of appreciation to someone offering a hand. However, documents and massive testimony over the years confirm the exchange.
-- Misstatements to Congress by a former aide regarding those sales were not misstatements at all. However, the aide admitted in a court that he had misrepresented himself.
Reporters who saw the videotaped deposition yesterday in federal court repeatedly saw the former president shake his head in apology, glance down and say he did not remember.
Pressed about his knowledge of the activities of Lt. Col. Oliver North in supplying the contras with military aid, Reagan said, ``Well, I am not sure I am understanding this. My major was in economics, not law.''
Asked about Gen. John Vessey, whom he picked to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff between 1982 and 1985, making Vessey the top military man during those years, Reagan replied, ``Oh, dear. I could ask for help here. The name I know is very familiar.''
Asked about Eugene Hasenfus, an American shot down by the Nicaraguans as he tried to drop military supplies to the contras, Reagan said: ``My memory goes no further than the fact that he was a citizen of our country and was the victim of an accident.'' Hasenfus was under instructions from and paid by North.
Shown a photograph of Adolfo Calero, a leader of the contras, whose cause preoccupied Reagan for his entire administration, Reagan said, ``That picture is familiar, but I am darned if I can put a name to it.''
Finding an opportunity to defend his administration, Reagan said:
``I have to say . . . this whole thing has given an impression that the whole government or the presidential area of the government, the administration, the only problem was . . . this development in this Iranian issue.
``And it ignores the fact that that was just one of many things that were going on, and that the government was involved in things of great import, not only having to do with domestic problems, but with the Cold War and things of that kind, and trying to arrive at treaties with regard to nuclear weapons and so forth.''
-- This report includes information from the Los Angeles Times and Knight-Ridder Newspapers.