From the beginning of the Reagan Administration, many old foreign-policy hands, and not just those unsympathetic to the Administration, worried about the weakness at its foreign policy center. To speak of cabinet government or to enshrine the secretary of state as the government's principal foreign policy spokesman was fine rhetoric, but to downgrade the White House as an honest broker among the departments or as a protector of the President's options and stakes was worrisome. It seemed a recipe for gridlock when the departments could not agree, and for incoherence when they were allowed to pursue their own preferences.
In the end, sadly, those worries came true, although not in exactly the way the worriers had imagined. The White House's National Security Council remained weak as a coordinator but came to be the operator of large covert operations. Strong ideological preferences at the top of government bred frustration with constraints imposed by Congress and with the immobility of State or the CIA. That led to weak checks downward; the President's protectors in the White House had instead become the committed operators. The result was the Iran-Contra affair, the Reagan Administration's darkest days.
Ben Bradlee Jr.'s book, everything you wanted to know etc. about Lt. Col. Oliver North, helps us understand why the Administration came to that pass. It charts North's rise from "easel toting junior functionary," detailed from the Marine Corps to the National Security Council in 1981, to the man at the center of the Administration's most sensitive covert operations. Steven Emerson's book is more scattered, but it intersects with Bradlee's--some of the same characters and operations appear, and it ends up reinforcing the lessons of Bradlee's book.
The portrait of North that Bradlee paints is by now familiar: straight, brave, incredibly hard-working and dedicated, both to his colleagues and to his cause, but of middling intelligence and narrow perspective. Bradlee is fairer and more honest than authors of such books frequently are. He quotes his interviewees when they contradict his theme--for instance, North's professor at the Naval War College who labels him "extremely bright." Bradlee also makes clear the sources of his quotations; the reader isnot left wondering how a conversation between two people, neither one the author, in an elevator could be reported as direct quotation.
Bradlee also resists the investigative journalist's instinct for the sensational: He reports--but does not make too much of--North's reported suicide threat or his three-week hospitalization at year's end in 1974; he implicitly concludes, fairly I think, that North is like the rest of us: Who wouldn't crack, at least briefly, under the strain of two Vietnam tours and a marital crisis?
By the same token, Bradlee notes the speculation that was inevitable when a secretary who "just happened to look like Farah Fawcett" worked night and day for a dashing Marine. But in the end, he takes Fawn Hall at her word that the relationship was admiring, even adoring, on her part but professional; besides, if North was chauvinistic toward women, he was also courtly.
The book displays some of the defects of its hasty production. There are numerous typos; in my favorite, perhaps a tribute to Fawn Hall's subconscious attractions, "Secret Service" is rendered as "Secretary Service." The prose is occasionally wooden--North "had almost constant interaction with Reagan"--and several anecdotes are repeated in the book.
Yet the book provides plenty of wherewithal. Although Bradlee could not interview North or his wife, his 300-plus interviews do illuminate North's life before he came to the White House; most of the second half of the book is drawn from the Tower Commission and the Congress' Iran-Contra investigation, but those voluminous sources are hardly on everyone's reading list.
In the end, Bradlee's answer to the question why North came to such prominence is straightforward but no less troubling for it: North worked harder and had less time for doubts than anyone else, and he moved into a vacuum with the assistance of two sponsors, William Casey and Robert McFarlane, who valued his can-do spirit.
McFarlane seems to have been almost fatherly toward North, although he was not that much older; a fellow Marine, he too had risen far, from "horse-holder" under Henry Kissinger to Reagan's national security adviser. If, in retrospect, North appears out of his depth, McFarlane seems so too; he was induced to keep the arms sales to Iran alive into 1986 despite his deep misgivings. In retrospect, McFarlane's own breakdown seems almost tragic; it, and perhaps the time he spent talking with Bradlee, hints at expiation for earlier misjudgments.