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The in­com­ing pres­i­dent of the NRA has a long—and no­to­ri­ous—his­tory of ped­dling al­ter­na­tive facts

Newsweek - - Contents - BY MALCOLM BYRNE @Mal­colm_byrne

Oliver North’s His­tory of Al­ter­na­tive Facts

three decades ago, long be­fore pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump bragged about the size of his in­au­gu­ra­tion crowd, Oliver North—the new pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion—held the coun­try in thrall with his own dis­plays of dis­sem­bling and dis­hon­esty, turn­ing a fun­da­men­tal dis­re­gard for facts into a po­lit­i­cal strength. As the Trump-russia probe con­tin­ues, North’s rise, fall and re­turn to na­tional promi­nence offer some clear les­sons, both for the pres­i­dent and his de­trac­tors.

A for­mer Ma­rine who served on the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil (NSC) staff un­der Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan, North was at the core of the big­gest po­lit­i­cal scan­dal of that era—the Iran-con­tra af­fair. (He even­tu­ally was con­victed on three crim­i­nal charges, although an appeals panel va­cated the con­vic­tions on a tech­ni­cal­ity.) The scan­dal in­volved a bum­bling se­ries of covert ops in the mid-1980s cen­tered on a scheme to sell U.S. mis­siles to Iran; the plot was to siphon the prof­its to

Con­tra rebels fight­ing the Nicaragua’s Com­mu­nist govern­ment. Both were ar­guably il­le­gal—cer­tainly the per­pe­tra­tors be­haved as if they were—and vi­o­lated of­fi­cial U.S. poli­cies, not to men­tion ba­sic spy-craft and com­mon sense.

These were not rogue ac­tiv­i­ties. As I ex­plain in my book Iran-con­tra: Rea­gan’s Scan­dal and the Unchecked Abuse of Pres­i­den­tial Power, Rea­gan knew about most, though prob­a­bly not all, as­pects of these op­er­a­tions and pushed his staff to con­tinue them. Even though the pres­i­dent un­der­stood he could be break­ing the law, he never re­treated from his over­rid­ing goals of bring­ing Amer­i­can hostages home from Le­banon and driv­ing Com­mu­nists out of this hemi­sphere.

North was Rea­gan’s prin­ci­pal foot sol­dier in these du­bi­ous cam­paigns. As he or­ga­nized weapons sales to the ay­a­tol­lahs and se­cretly sup­plied sup­port to the Nicaraguan rebels, he lied se­ri­ally to vir­tu­ally ev­ery group he en­coun­tered—those he was work­ing against (no­tably the Ira­ni­ans), those he co­op­er­ated with (in­clud­ing his own NSC staff col­leagues and su­pe­ri­ors) and those who wanted to know more about what he was do­ing (Congress and the press).

When both the Iran and Con­tra op­er­a­tions were ex­posed—within

a month of each other in late 1986—his de­cep­tions mul­ti­plied. He fal­si­fied of­fi­cial doc­u­ments to throw in­ves­ti­ga­tors off track and shred­ded un­known quan­ti­ties of ev­i­dence—all to evade Congress, the Justice Depart­ment and the ad­min­is­tra­tion-ap­pointed in­de­pen­dent coun­sel, Lawrence Walsh (a pre­de­ces­sor to Robert Mueller to­day).

None of these ac­tions were out of the or­di­nary for some­one caught break­ing the law. But that changed in 1987 when a Democrat-con­trolled Congress held pub­lic hear­ings. Democrats on the joint in­ves­ti­gat­ing com­mit­tees, some of whom were vet­er­ans of the Water­gate pro­ceed­ings, im­plic­itly hoped for a reprise of that suc­cess—back when law­mak­ers faced down the im­pe­rial pres­i­dent and came away look­ing heroic. In­stead, wit­ness af­ter wit­ness chal­lenged the com­mit­tees, jus­ti­fy­ing their of­fenses on pa­tri­otic or eth­i­cal grounds, and show­ered North with maudlin trib­utes. His sec­re­tary, Fawn Hall, en­cap­su­lated their sense of right­eous­ness by in­sist­ing there were times “when you have to go above the writ­ten law.”

But it was North who of­fered the most re­mark­able—and brazen—per­for­mance. Ap­pear­ing in his Ma­rine uni­form (in con­trast to the gray suits of his in­ter­roga­tors), he con­fronted them with a com­bi­na­tion of blunt ad­mis­sions of mis­con­duct and gush­ing loy­alty to the flag and the pres­i­dent. One lengthy ex­am­ple cap­tures his tone: a re­sponse to a ques­tion about why he thought Rea­gan had fired him from his White House job:

Let me just make one thing very clear, coun­sel. This lieu­tenant colonel is not go­ing to chal­lenge a de­ci­sion of the com­man­der in chief, for whom I still work. And I am proud to work for that com­man­der in chief. And if the com­man­der in chief tells this lieu­tenant colonel to go stand in the cor­ner and sit on his head, I will do so. And if the com­man­der in chief de­cides to dis­miss me from the NSC staff, this lieu­tenant colonel will proudly salute, and say, “Thank you for the op­por­tu­nity to have served” and go. And I am not go­ing to crit­i­cize his de­ci­sion, no mat­ter how he re­lieves me, sir.

NORTH’S CON­FES­SIONS WERE SOME­TIMES bizarre. At one point, con­gres­sional lead­ers asked him about a $14,000 se­cu­rity gate that an as­so­ciate had in­stalled for him at his home. North never paid for it, which made the project the equiv­a­lent of com­pen­sa­tion, a fed­eral crime for a govern­ment of­fi­cial to ac­cept. North ad­mit­ted he had ginned up two phony let­ters to the con­trac­tor to make it look as if he in­tended to pay. To make it all seem real, he went to a re­tail store to sur­rep­ti­tiously use a type­writer on dis­play so the let­ters to the con­trac­tor could not be traced back to him. Then he used a file on the type­writer ball so they looked as if they had been writ­ten at dif­fer­ent times.

His shocking de­cep­tions aside, North’s ad­mis­sions of more rou­tine dis­hon­esty (“I will tell you right now, coun­sel, and all the mem­bers here gathered, that I mis­led the Congress”) some­how blunted the com­mit­tees’ at­tempts to catch him in a fresh lie. His re­morse­ful school­boy man­ner (“I want you to know ly­ing does not come easy to me”) ex­as­per­ated his ques­tion­ers, and his at­ti­tude—si­mul­ta­ne­ously boast­ful (“I lied ev­ery time I met the Ira­ni­ans”) and self-ex­cul­pa­tory (“I think we all had to weigh in the bal­ance the dif­fer­ence be­tween lives and lies”)—reg­u­larly kept con­gres­sional lead­ers off-bal­ance.

A prime ob­jec­tive for North and his at­tor­neys, which they car­ried off to spec­tac­u­lar effect, was to por­tray his in­quisi­tors as self-pro­mot­ing Washington in­sid­ers—part of the swamp—and North as the self­less out­sider un­afraid to take them on.

Both sides, North’s team and the con­gres­sional com­mit­tees, un­der­stood the stakes. But North was far bet­ter at po­lit­i­cal theater, us­ing props rang­ing from his ch­est full of medals to stacks of tele­grams from fans (at his crim­i­nal trial, he some­times used a Bi­ble), plus a voice choked with emo­tion. Mean­while, as Hol­ly­wood leg­end Steven Spiel­berg once pointed out, the ques­tion­ers on their el­e­vated dais un­wit­tingly adopted the “vil­lain’s an­gle,” gaz­ing down at the wit­nesses and giv­ing them the ad­van­tage of look­ing like vic­tims, if not he­roes.

The im­pact of North’s week­long ap­pear­ance was ex­tra­or­di­nary. Pub­lic out­pour­ings of sup­port for the lieu­tenant colonel—the press dubbed it “Ol­lie­ma­nia”—stunned most com­mit­tee mem­bers, who cringed when Capi­tol police lined up for photo ops with him. Thou­sands of tele­grams, in the days be­fore email, and phone calls to Congress in sup­port of North cowed the ma­jor­ity into trim­ming back their ag­gres­sive ap­proach. A few who had blasted North be­fore his tes­ti­mony cravenly re­versed them­selves and li­on­ized him af­ter­ward. Em­bold­ened Repub­li­can mem­bers ratch­eted

North demon­strated that show­man­ship and per­for­mance could be far more ef­fec­tive than truth.

up their de­fense of Rea­gan and his ad­min­is­tra­tion, be­com­ing pro­tec­tors of the party in­stead of try­ing to dis­cover the truth about what had hap­pened and who was re­spon­si­ble.

Years be­fore can­di­date Trump star­tled the na­tion with his pen­chant for shame­less fab­ri­ca­tions and mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions—poli­tifact found that nearly 70 per­cent of his cam­paign state­ments were “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire”—north demon­strated that show­man­ship and per­for­mance could be far more ef­fec­tive than truth. In­vok­ing tra­di­tional val­ues like pa­tri­o­tism, or oth­er­wise play­ing on pop­u­lar emo­tions, ex­erted a mag­netic pull on mil­lions of Amer­i­cans. It also ex­ac­er­bated some of the same po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions that ex­ist to­day.

North’s siz­able group of fol­low­ers—ol­lie’s Army, as they were called—was sim­i­lar to Trump’s faith­ful base. But North’s later ex­pe­ri­ences may be in­struc­tive for the cur­rent pres­i­dent, as well as his per­sonal lawyer, Michael Co­hen, now un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. One is that the threat of pros­e­cu­tion can have a rev­e­la­tory effect, even on the most de­voted of aides. The minute jail time loomed as a real pos­si­bil­ity for North, his role as loyal sol­dier quickly stopped. “I don’t be­lieve that any of those peo­ple [his su­pe­ri­ors] fore­saw the out­come of what has hap­pened,” North told Congress. “I do hon­estly be­lieve that they ex­pected that Ol­lie would go qui­etly, and Ol­lie in­tended to do so right up un­til the day that some­body de­cided to start a crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion.”

An­other les­son from North’s tra­vails is that a fa­nat­i­cal pha­lanx of loy­al­ists may not al­ways be enough. When the EX-NSC staffer put his le­gal trou­bles be­hind him and ran for the Se­nate from Vir­ginia in 1994, a co­hort of se­nior mem­bers of his party took out their pent-up anger against him for fail­ing to stand by Rea­gan to the end. As a prom­i­nent GOP ex­con­gress­man, Pete Mc­closkey, put it: “Oliver North’s only ab­so­lute com­mit­ment is to him­self and his am­bi­tions. North wraps him­self in the flag but be­trays the repub­lic for which it stands.” Even Rea­gan lashed out at his for­mer aide for his “false state­ments,” writ­ing in 1994, “I’m get­ting pretty steamed about the state­ments com­ing from Oliver North.”

North’s Se­nate bid fell short. He went on to a suc­cess­ful career at Fox News be­fore set­ting his sights on lead­ing the NRA. But he never tried to run for of­fice again. He’d gone too far.

As Nancy Rea­gan, not one to for­give slights against her hus­band, once told a PBS au­di­ence, “Ol­lie North has a great deal of trou­ble sep­a­rat­ing fact from fan­tasy.”

Much like Trump him­self.

Ơ Malcolm Byrne is di­rec­tor of re­search at the non­govern­men­tal Na­tional Se­cu­rity Archive at Ge­orge Washington Univer­sity and the author of Iran-con­tra: Rea­gan’s Scan­dal and the Unchecked Abuse of Pres­i­den­tial Power. The views ex­pressed here are his own.

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