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PRESENTING . . . OLIVER NORTH : A Theatrical Finding: The Witness as Character Actor

July 12, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN

A colleague suggested a couple of weeks ago that I "review" the Iran- contra hearings. I pointed out that this was a real-life event, even if it was on TV, and that a real-life event is not obliged to be entertaining.

Indeed, in matters of law, it is obliged not to be entertaining. One principle of good theater is compression--saying it once and saying it well. But in a legal proceeding, the truth about an issue will take time to emerge, with all sorts of backing and filling so that everyone's rights are protected. This is not a dramatic process.

Even if you could "review" the hearings, it would be cynical to do so. There's enough confusion between fact and fiction these days. Besides, is anyone amused at what the hearings are bringing out? We may grin at the disingenuousness of some of the testimony, but Sen. Daniel Inouye's solemnity reminds us that it's not a play.

But it certainly has its theatrical side. Start with the old reliable: Conflict. It is built into the interrogation process, especially when the interrogator closes in for the kill. But you don't expect this to happen five minutes after the witness has sat down. Counsel John Nields did just that with Lt. Col. Oliver North at Tuesday morning's first session. And North stood up to it. For three hours it was the last of the ninth, bases loaded.

A congressional hearing provides a fascinating magnification of a process that sociologist Erving Goffman has described as "the presentation of self in everyday life." Anybody testifying to the entire nation finds himself onstage, playing a role: Himself. (Or herself, as with Fawn Hall. But this is a mostly male cast.)

That doesn't mean that the witness is lying. But he is projecting a simplified, idealized version of himself. (In which he may actually believe: The best self-presenters do.) Invariably, he creates a firmly drawn character who had good and sufficient reason for everything he did, even when it was a reason of the heart--that lovable old American failing--rather than the head.

We never hear that it was 5 o'clock on a Friday after a tough week and the guy just had to get out of the office. No matter how bizarre the testimony, the voice in which it is given will be calm and reasonable, that of a professional recalling to the utmost of his ability the events that occurred at that point in time.

There is also the attempt to add the human touch. One doesn't recall in previous hearings quite such an emphasis on the family--how much North cared about his children, for example. And there are attempts at humor, as when North said that he obviously didn't shred enough documents. Nobody laughed.

Dramatically speaking, North makes an exemplary witness. Not only is he an interesting personality, he's a fascinating type--the career military officer who absolutely believes that he is helping to keep the Forces of Darkness at bay. In a world "at risk," the niceties can't always be obeyed.

North is also an adroit character actor, starting with his choice of costume. In a suit and tie, he would look very much like the people who were asking him questions. But where were they in Vietnam? The uniform establishes North's devotion to God and Country, and also lends him a certain boyishness--the right to be just a little bit flip with these civilians, who say "two thousand hours" (8 p.m.) when they mean "twenty-hundred."

A convincing performance in the theater is based on subtext--the message under the message. North's subtext speaks volumes. He chooses his words with a hurt sincerity, as though he can't imagine why his country is wasting time on procedural matters while the adversary tests the gates.

But he's not whimpering. He is a Marine. He will take the heat, exactly as he would if captured by the enemy. One day the truth will come out and then America will understand what it owes Oliver North. Not that he expects gratitude.

All conveyed without a word. This can't be done if the speaker doesn't believe it. That's why North is such a dramatic and troubling presence in these hearings. He reads from one set of lines, but he is in another play (movie?) entirely, in which a band of brave guys are willing to go beyond the rules to save the American system from itself. It's a dangerous scenario in a world at risk.

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