Providence told Ollie North to take Capitol Hill, or maybe it was Fate. Col. North said "Yessir," saluted, and led the charge. He waited till he saw the whites of their eyes. He damned the torpedoes. He regretted that he had but one life to give.
At times during Lt. Col. Oliver L. North's testimony, government bureaucrats in the hallways cheered him on. They like the little guy down in the pit, battling Goliath. For the rest of us, whether as hero or villain, Ollie North is the best movie star in the best movie we've seen in years.
He was solemn and irreverent, unpretentious and careful with his Latin endings (not memoranda, memorandum), not easily put upon, unswerving in the way he saw his duty, the way he did it and the way he defended it. He was every hero of every World War II movie ever made. He withstood attack by wave after wave of companies of lawyers, investigators and high-seated politicians (on camera, they look down on him; he looks up at them and calls them "sir"). And he took Capitol Hill.
Most of all, Ollie North scored yet another victory for the "squares" of America over the now-tarnished "best and brightest." The squares include military types and small-town patriots, people who believe in obedience, loyalty, fidelity and the defense of America against enemies foreign and domestic--even when that defense takes messy work.
They were not saints who built America. Our ancestors talked a holy language and dreamed holy ideals. But they did not scruple to fight by guile for what they believed in. The honor of the country first, the survival of the country first. "Ends don't justify means," of course, but moral life is more complex than one simple principle.
Ollie North is a reproach to everything that "the best and the brightest" stand for. He is Mr. Obedience, Mr. Fidelity, Mr. Honor, Mr. Pride in the old U.S.A. He is enough to make a progressive sick for weeks.
Take the congressional committees' honorary counsel, John W. Nields Jr. A perfect specimen of the "new class," if ever there was one, giving Ollie North lessons on communist countries, "openness" and covert action. And lectures on morality!
That other honorary counsel, that highest-paid cross-examiner from New York, Arthur L. Liman, tried to win Ollie North's sympathy by praising Ollie North's medals, his valor and his values. (The same Liman had already spoken to North in tones of contempt.) Liman wanted Ollie's sympathies in order to turn Ollie against "higher-ups" who, he insinuated, had betrayed Ollie. To make Ollie North denounce his commander-in-chief would have left Ollie North in moral ruin, a Marine who had violated his honor. In this vein, Arthur Liman was shameless.
North was lucky in his antagonists: the nervous lip movements of Counsel Nields, who looked like Everyman's image of an arrogant, long-haired Washington brat, and the softened cynicism of Everyman's well-paid lawyer.
But the big story lies beneath the surface. Ollie North dramatized the clash between two antagonistic moral visions.
To be sophisticated and progressive in America is to recognize the validity of "legal process" and to celebrate it as another forward step in the march of progress. To prefer the "old morality" is said, not withstanding the dependence of American institutions on it, to be conservative.
North's achievement was to insist on the validity of an old American morality. The prosecutorial lawyers of the joint committee thought that they would triumph simply by getting Ollie North to admit what he did. He admitted such facts freely. In the moral framework invoked by Nields, in particular, North's actions damned him.
But North supplied a different moral framework. He insisted that: (1) the Constitution entitles the President to conduct foreign-policy missions; (2) the Boland amendment does not apply to the National Security Council; (3) our democracy had from the beginning needed, and always will need, covert actions; (4) covert actions impose further moral constraints in addition to (not in place of) everyday morality--to maintain secrecy to protect lives, for example, and, (5) given only bad choices, a moral man must discern and choose the lesser evil.
On the last point Ollie North often had to choose between telling Congress and others the full truth and protecting a legitimate (as he believed) covert operation. He chose what he thought was right, his duty.
Ollie North's achievement was to supply a moral framework within which, by and large, his actions were legal, moral and right. He made that framework credible. I do not agree with all of it, and I fault (as he did) some judgments that he made within it. But he compelled respect for it, above all in Congress.
This leaves the American people with a fundamental constitutional question, not to be decided by popular opinion but by the Supreme Court: Is legislation like the Boland Amendment constitutional?