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North Draws Warm Reception at College


MISSION VIEJO — After two standing ovations, numerous autographs, dozens of flashbulbs popping in his face and countless displays of spontaneous applause Friday, former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North was ready to field his first question.

The young man approached the microphone in the brightly lit Saddleback College gym and wanted to know about a recent newspaper series. Was what he had read in the San Jose Mercury News really true, the man asked:

Did a connection exist between the Nicaraguan contras whom North once supported and drug dealers in South-Central Los Angeles, who allegedly helped fund the contras with proceeds from the sale of crack cocaine?

For the first time all day, North appeared momentarily flustered. Coy and cool from the moment he set foot on campus and embraced by virtually every adoring fan who extended a hand or hug, he suddenly sounded irked.

Calling it "a frivolous, crazy question," North, 52, told the man: "I want to be very specific. I do not know, nor have I ever known, anyone who would tolerate drugs coming into this country. . . .

"Where were these accusers in 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990 . . . when Congress conducted one of its longest inquisitions in history" into allegations that North masterminded a plan to finance the contra rebels in Nicaragua by selling weapons to the Iranian government.

"Where were they then?" he demanded. "Can you tell me that?"

North's response was punctuated with more thunderous applause from the highly partisan crowd that packed one entire side of the Saddleback Gauchos basketball arena and included a who's who of Orange County's Republicans.

Based on the mood of the crowd, it was hard to believe that advance word of North's appearance had sparked any controversy at all, as, in fact, it had.

Articles in the student newspaper had questioned the validity of inviting onto campus such an icon of the far right, and both pro- and anti-North protests had been promised all week long.

North was convicted of aiding in the obstruction of Congress, accepting illegal gratuities and destroying documents. The courts overturned his convictions on appeal in 1990.

Friday's protests failed to materialize, with only one 60-year-old man from Dana Point holding up a sign that read "California Is Clinton Country" and jockeying for position with a handful of dark-suited students from the Young Americans for Freedom. The latter group wore "YAF" on their lapels and carried such banners as "United We Stand, Liberal We Fall" and "Ollie Never Went Whitewater Rafting."

Aurnie Sutliffe, who appeared to be the lone Democrat anywhere in the vicinity, was outside the gym arguing to anyone who would listen that a Clinton supporter ought to be given equal time--even in Orange County, where recent polls show Clinton running neck-and-neck with challenger Bob Dole. "At a college of higher education, both sides ought to be given the opportunity to present their views," said Sutliffe, who seemed genuinely surprised upon being greeted warmly by a smiling North, who spotted the pro-Clinton sign en route to the gym and walked over to pump Sutliffe's hand and thank him for coming.

Moments later, North said he agreed with Sutliffe--that college campuses ought to be forums of every political view, even if it meant having to listen to the likes of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

"And furthermore," North told a reporter, "I'd be disappointed if there weren't a few protesters."

Before his speech, North met briefly with the press, which wanted to know his reaction to the newspaper series that only last month dredged up the Iran-contra scandal, although this time with a radically different twist.

North said he had welcomed onto his radio show--"The fastest-growing talk show in the United States!"--Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), only to tell her she owed him an apology for "making ridiculous allegations" on the floor of the U.S. House.

"I think the whole story is absolute garbage," North said of the allegations. "It's an effort to distract the American people from the Clinton administration's appalling record of dealing with drugs. It is typical of the most liberal elements of our political spectrum to find somebody else to blame for everything."

An ex-Marine who rose to fame as a key player in the Iran-contra arms deal, North was invited to Saddleback College by Assemblyman Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside), who introduced North and the subject of his speech, "Is the U.S. Constitution Still Relevant?"

It is relevant, said North, who wore his boyish, gap-toothed grin most of the day and whose answers occasionally provoked murmurs of surprise among the crowd, though in no way chilling their enthusiasm.

After being serenaded by a drill team that wore glittery American flags as tight-fitting vests, and getting to meet the great-great-grandson of Francis Scott Key, North took aim at the street curfews imposed on teenagers by some cities. Hitler, he said, was a big fan of such curfews.

He decried almost all attempts at censorship, denounced an unannounced police search of a black woman's apartment in a public-housing complex and even defended the right of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the Denver Nuggets basketball team not to stand during the national anthem.

"But," he thundered, flashing his trademark smile, "I also defend the right of the Denver Nuggets owner to fire that guy . . . which I believe he should have done--with enthusiasm!"

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