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Betsy North--a Silent but Oh-So Strong Partner : She's an Independent Woman Devoted to Her Family and--Some Say--a Reason Her Husband Is a Senate Contender

July 13, 1994|BARBARA SLAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — The back-yard barbecue in a leafy Virginia suburb was half over and the time had come for Oliver L. North, Republican candidate for Senate, to speak.

Before jumping into his standard stump speech about the evils of the Washington Establishment he hopes to tangle with for a second time, the former Marine lieutenant colonel and Iran-Contra defendant referred to his wife of 26 years.

"Betsy was supposed to be here half an hour ago, but she's operating on Betsy Standard Time," he said.

Then he added: "We don't have any nannies, butler or a maid. Betsy believes someone should be there with our children."

The Norths, beneficiaries of that unique American phenomenon that can turn those touched by scandal into millionaires, could easily afford household help, even though their son and three daughters, all in their teens or 20s, no longer need baby-sitters.

But "family values" are a major theme of the North campaign, so the candidate sought to portray his wife's absence as a virtue.

He told the gathering that his wife had taken their daughters to a wedding shower in Great Falls, Va., where the Norths lived during his tenure on the National Security Council in the 1980s.

Earlier, North said his wife was shepherding their youngest daughter, Dornin, through a riding test.

Whatever Betsy North's exact whereabouts, North, who has been known to embellish his own exploits, was apparently not exaggerating his wife's devotion to their children--or the independent streak that would lead her to go AWOL from a minor political function on a sweaty Sunday afternoon.

Those who have observed Betsy North over the years described her as the force that has kept her household together, the calm in the storm aroused by North since he was revealed as a central figure in Iran-Contra. (For those who may have forgotten, that was the scheme to sell arms to Iran to try to free American hostages in Lebanon; then divert the profits to circumvent a congressional ban on aid to anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua.)

But while Betsy North sat dutifully in congressional hearing rooms and courtrooms during her husband's legal tribulations--the picture of devotion in shirtwaist dress and pearls--her participation in his first electoral foray has been sporadic.

"She's such a private person," said Dorothea Bronars, a longtime friend. "When Ollie got the nomination, she told me, 'I will do what I can when I can . . . if it doesn't interfere with the children.' "

Repeated requests to interview Betsy North were denied. Whether that was her decision or that of her husband's campaign staff could not be determined.

"We choppered her back home when I found out you were here," Dan McLagan, a North spokesman, told a reporter at the rally, presumably in jest.

Betsy North was at her husband's side at his nomination June 4 and has appeared in and narrated a commercial, in which she describes North as a "special man" who has been attacked by "the powerful few" but who has "never given up."

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According to those who know her well, she would far rather spend time with her kids and her dogs, cats, horses and cattle on the 194-acre spread 70 miles from Washington in northwest Virginia, to which the family moved when North's court days were over--and his lecture fees began mounting.

"She is a horse person. She loves to ride," Bronars said, adding that Betsy North's "favorite thing is cleaning out the barn," perhaps not such a bad preparation for political life.

The woman North calls his best friend was born Frances Elizabeth Stuart 50 years ago in a small town in western Pennsylvania.

Her father, Jeb, descended from the Jeb Stuart, the Confederate war hero, ran a small canning factory.

A graduate of Penn State University, Betsy Stuart had a job at Hechts, a Washington-area department store, when a cousin of North's showed her his picture and asked if she'd accept a blind date.

"He's good-looking. You can give him my number," she said, according to a 1987 interview in Life magazine, the only one she is known to have given.

The courtship lasted seven months, while North completed the Naval Academy and Marine officers training. Following their wedding in 1968, they had barely two weeks together before he was sent to Vietnam.

The marriage was almost a war casualty.

In late 1973, North, who had already completed one tour of duty in Vietnam and a year as a trainer on Okinawa, agreed, without consulting his wife, to extend his deployment to command a company likely to be sent back to Vietnam.

According to North's autobiography, "Under Fire" (HarperCollins, 1991), Betsy sent him a letter saying she now realized that the Marine Corps was more important to him than she or their (then two) children and she wanted a divorce.

North canceled the extension and returned to Washington, where he was briefly hospitalized for psychiatric treatment of depression. At the suggestion of doctors, he and his wife entered marriage counseling.

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