YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Ollie's Act: Lessons From A Master Of Tv


Your government--and your television--in action. . . .

The Nicaraguan contra cause was trumpeted again almost without challenge Tuesday. The Reagan Administration--said to be readying a proposal to increase controversial aid to contras fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua--surely was thrilled by this latest blast of contraganda.

As always, the scene was the old Senate Caucus Room where joint committees of Congress were continuing their public investigation of the Iran-contra affair.

As always, the messenger was Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, who was later followed by his former boss, Robert C. McFarlane.

As always, the method of delivery was TV.

Only Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D, Hawaii), the panel's chairman, on Tuesday detailed his own opposition to aid to the contras.

North's sixth and final day of televised testimony began with spectacle: a sad/comic debate on whether he would be allowed to present on national TV the slide show he repeatedly gave to potential private funders of the contras in his former capacity as a top National Security Council official.

The President's most fervent supporters--all Republicans--said yes, hoping to get more TV publicity for the contras. Others--Republicans and a few Democrats--said no. For 25 minutes, they argued. They bickered. They blustered. Most were ridiculous. A low ripple of giggles greeted Rep. Michael DeWine (R-Ohio) when he insisted that the public was demanding to see the slide show. The camera even caught North's wife laughing.

"This is your Congress in action," NBC's Tom Brokaw noted in a voice-over. "This is vintage Congress," said ABC's Brit Hume.

"These members have been very, very quiet," said Cokie Roberts on PBS, characterizing them almost as infants in a nursery school. "They need to talk a little bit."

In the inevitable compromise, North was allowed to present his slide show--but without projector and screen. For 15 minutes, he pulled out individual slides and described to the panel members--and the national TV audience--what they contained:

"Then some photographs showing the Nicaraguan resistance. It shows the young men and women who have taken up arms because they have been denied any other recourse in their own country. It shows the 57-year-old coffee farmer who . . . came home and found his entire family murdered by the Sandinistas because they gave water to a passing contra patrol. Then some photographs. . . ."

There were naturally no slides from North showing alleged atrocities by contra forces.

Nor were there any post-testimony TV interviews with anyone who was then openly critical of contra aid as a matter of policy. Nor had ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS or CNN earlier put on dissenting voices to balance North's pro-contra pleas--eloquent, passionate speeches that somehow passed as testimony.

"We been hearin' this speech for four (actually, six) days now," a seemingly resigned Rep. Dante Fascell (D, Fla.), who had voted for contra aid, said on CBS Tuesday. "One more time is just one more time."

If North had been allowed to show his slides on a screen in addition to describing them, moreover, all of the networks apparently would have routinely carried that spectacle, too, live and unfiltered, as if it were legitimate testimony instead of artful propaganda.

Why was North able to give even his slideless presentation, despite the fact that those on the panel who opposed it reportedly had enough votes to block it? Because even panel members who opposed North also feared him; feared appearing to abuse, mistreat or squelch him; feared that public opinion polls were right about his enormous popularity.

"He has succeeded in getting a free ride for his case for the contras," Hume noted Monday. Succeeded with the help of TV.

You knew that North's detractors were in trouble last week as soon as he began speaking the language TV understands best: 30-second sound bites.

He also knew how to apply a capper. You say that the late CIA Director William Casey was a smart man? North adds: "smartest I've ever met." You say the people working for North in support of the contras were patriots? North adds: "brave young patriots."

North is the genie who refuses to return to his bottle.

"He's punched absolutely every possible button," Cokie Roberts said on PBS last week. "There's not an emotional chord he's not plucked here. The committee members recognize a good performance when they see one. After all, they're politicians and are in the performance business themselves."

Yes, performance. There was the earnest North. The wounded North. The fighting North. The resolute North. The sheepish North. The righteous North. The sincere North. There was North the puppy dog, obedient, loyal, soulful.

There was North the metaphor, a living, charismatic amalgamation of six days of TV-tailored symbols.

Los Angeles Times Articles