The Ollie North Parallel

Let’s roll back the hands of time to early July 1987 as Oliver North is finally getting ready to testify before the Senate in the Iran-contra affair. The press and other Washington elites are united in their certainty that North will be discredited on the witness stand. North’s reputation is already in tatters with the recent revelation that the government paid for a $14,000 security system for his home. A Time headline perfectly captures the mood: “Can North Be Believed? His Credibility Declines as His Testimony Nears.” U.S. News also reflects these hang-him-high sentiments with a story headed, “Marine Colonel Will Talk: Who Will Believe Oliver North?”

The answer, as it quickly turned out, was that the same Americans who elected Ronald Reagan twice believed Ollie North. As Newsweek shamelessly gushed at the height of Olliemania: “Lt. Col. Oliver L. North charged up Capitol Hill last week as the Rambo of diplomacy…But he captured the hill as Ollie: a new national folk hero who somehow embodied Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper and John Wayne in one bemedaled uniform.” (Chatterbox knows from personal experience that there is no purple prose like that of a news-magazine writer on rhetorical overdrive).

Back in 1987, Senate Democrats naively believed that they merely had to expose Ollie North to on-camera questioning to prompt Americans hate him like they did. Last Friday, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee made the same mistake with Bill Clinton’s grand-jury testimony. It just goes to show that personal venom can warp the judgment of even the most cynical political operators.

Walter Shapiro