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The Return of the Colonel : Oliver North's Contempt for Congress Brought Him Notoriety, and in a Year When Many Voters Share That Scorn, It May Just Win Him a Senate Seat

October 23, 1994|Nina J. Easton | Nina J. Easton is the magazine's staff writer. Her last article was on a teenager's sexual-harassment case against a Northern California school district

Fifty-five days ahead of him, 13,000 miles behind him, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, USMC (Ret.), steps out of a motor home nicknamed Rolling Thunder and walks toward his next audience. For today's performance, North is not the decorated Marine colonel on trial for intentionally deceiving Congress. He's not the Reagan insider who orchestrated a covert gun-running operation to the Nicaraguan rebels from his tiny office a few steps from the West Wing. Today's Oliver North is just a Virginia businessman who thinks taxes are too high. And, come Nov. 8, if the voters of the Old Dominion will have him, he'd like to represent their interests in the United States Senate.

By the way, call him Ollie.

North brings to this gathering in front of the colonial Loudoun County Courthouse all the trappings of a successful Virginia businessman: the gray-flecked hair, the Burberry tie and crisp white dress shirt (sleeves rolled up, candidate style), black stitched cowboy boots. His gait is a little stiff, not surprising for a man injured first in a devastating car crash and later in the jungles of the DMZ when he took grenade fragments to the hand and leg while trying to clear out North Vietnamese army units.

But on this September morning, as North surprises the crowd from behind, he is momentarily awkward and self-conscious. There is a flash of insecurity that recalls, for the briefest moment, the Senate Caucus Room in July, 1987, when a youthful 43-year-old Marine did his Jimmy Stewart best to convince a nation to embrace his sometimes lonely, secret war against the communist bear.

From the back of the crowd, numbering about 100, chanting begins--"OL-LIE! OL-OLIE!"--and a lopsided smile starts to crack across North's face. Northern Virginia, with its suburban D.C. pockets of liberalism, can be dicey territory for North. But here in Leesburg, the site of a bloody Union defeat on nearby bluffs above the Potomac River, he is in solid conservative territory. And he's among neighbors: His $1.17-million, 194-acre farmhouse estate, named Narnia after the fantasy land in C.S. Lewis' children's books, is just over the county line.

The autograph pen comes out, the hand begins the politician's shake, and within a few minutes North is standing next to a bronzed statue of Gen. George C. Marshall urging his followers to "create a new generation of leadership"--starting with him. "Some of this is blatant self-interest," he accedes, with a Reagan-like nod of the head, "because I am also a Loudoun County businessman, and the law officers in Loudoun County wear the armor that my company makes there in Sterling, Va. It has saved the lives of law officers all over America. The employees there are mostly minorities, they are mostly people who otherwise wouldn't have a job. But they do have a job because we have a free-enterprise system that allows them to go out and work and get the blessed dignity of an honest day's wage for an honest day's work."

But not for long. Not if President Clinton and his cronies, foremost among them Democratic opponent Sen. Charles S. Robb, continue to tax and regulate businesses to death. Not if they can continue their "wrongheaded" foreign policy and attacks on the U.S. Constitution. "I ask you for your prayers," North calls out to the crowd of well-dressed white professionals and housewives. "Professional pundits tell me all the time you can't talk about the power of prayer in modern elections. We shall see, friends. We . . . shall . . . see."

After that warm-up, North confidently plunges into the crowd; he's been on the campaign trail since January, and before that he was a regular among conservative groups that paid upward of $25,000 to fawn over him. The back-pats and photo ops are interrupted when the local Statehouse delegate introduces North to one voter who still isn't convinced: Kathy Adcock, Republican mother of two young boys. With an accent as soft as the Virginia horizon, Adcock tells North that she is concerned about "whether the controversy between you and Congress is going to pose any problems in your ability to work with Congress."

Through long eyelashes, North fixes his gaze on her and delivers a vigorous, single-minded defense of his campaign that goes on for several minutes, as aides and fans try to divert his attention. "I'm not going to be passive. I'm going to be the most energetic United States senator you have ever seen, and that's how you build a consensus." Finally, he turns away, apparently thinking he's charmed another convert. If so, he's wrong. "I agree with what he says" about the issues, Adcock tells me. But because he sees Congress as the enemy, "I just don't think he can do it."

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