May 7, 1989
Magnetic North, True North
The national postmortem on the Oliver North trial has begun. With plenty
of loose ends left unraveled, the country can safely look forward to a glut
of continuing speculation about the extent to which North was Iran-Contra's
There is little willingness to suspend disbelief on the part of the public
on this one: They believe Reagan and Bush were in on it all the way. All
that remains is for as many facts as possible to be squeezed out of Poindexter,
Secord, and Hakim to bolster North's contention that he was merely walking
point in the best traditions of chain of command obedience.
In an ideal world, those at the top would also feel the pinch of justice.
In this realistic one, Reagan will be left to somnambulant Bel Air pastures
and Bush has the perfect talisman in his acolyte-in-waiting vice-president.
The spotlight will remain on North, with the expectation that, as higher-ups
are increasingly implicated, sympathy for North will grow. And North, with
the cover-your-ass intensity he has displayed since the beginning of his
trial, will play to that sympathy as his appeal process unfolds.
North's career thus ends on a note of trenchant irony. The fair-haired boy
of the American right who two decades ago differentiated himself from that
motley collection of longhaired young men who declined to fight old men's
undeclared wars finds himself betrayed by those same old men whose bidding
he has always willingly done.
North was the pluperfect embodiment of the late-1970s neo-con reaction against
our Vietnam pullout and Congress's reinvigorated overseeing of executive
decision-making. War hero, youthful and eager, driven by the fear of monolithic
communism, he was the archetypal symbol of a reemergent young America, clean-cut
and unquestioning, which would spearhead what Todd Gitlin has called the
"counter-reformation" of the 1980s.
North, like his covert-op mentor William Casey, believed. For the
zealous professional soldier to have met up with the romantic spook still
living in the glow of his 1940s OSS exploits, was fecund matchmaking. And
when melded with the moviola splicing techniques with which Ronald Reagan
dismembered reality, the ensuing scenario was inevitable.
Perhaps no case officer in CIA history has been able to run an agent more
easily than Casey ran North. North was a snap, amenable, ambitious and innocent,
with a taste for the spotlight and an ability to embellish his stature second
only to Reagan himself. From my vantage point of growing up in a CIA household
and spending many years listening to my father talk about his work, the
example of Casey's direction of his young charge approached textbook perfection.
The cardinal rule for intelligence operatives is to never lose control of
your agents. It's a macho thing in the business, a test-of-wills hallmark
which every officer in the field knows can either make or break him. Casey
the crafty pro took a decidedly bright and tough North and orchestrated
his strengths and weaknesses, realizing he would get semper fi devotion
untainted by the worldly-wise guile of a Marseilles dockworker or a Hamburg
street-con, the more typical sorts of agents agency officers usually utilized.
North, the predisposed pawn, admitted during his trial that the Naval Academy
and Vietnam never prepared him for the shadow-world of covert operations.
His demeanor throughout seemed to suggest an undercurrent of boyish rage
that Casey, to use CIA parlance, had become the ultimate "cut-out"
man, leaving North abandoned to face a hostile world alone, without the
direct testimony Casey could have supplied to implicate others once North
had decided he wasn't going to be cast as the sole villain.
For all of that, as he stated in court, North still believes. Believes truly
in the program he set out to accomplish. Betrayed though he was, he hasn't
wavered about the grand design he and his former cohorts once envisioned.
All the old verities still apply: Congress is still the enemy, the press
is out to undermine the country, the people are too stupid to realize that
extra-constitutional means are needed to set the ship-of-state on true course.
One gets the feeling that North in his interminable warrior-innocence wants
only that his superiors confirm that he was a good soldier. He followed
all the orders he was given, and that, to him, is all that should matter.
The larger ramifications of illegality and unconstitutionality are lost
on him, as are, apparently, the code of ethics which governs the moral behavior
of the professional military man.
The rogue soldier whose only criterion was results becomes an apt metaphor
for a decade in which America attempted to regain its perceived loss of
cohesion and prestige by means of fulsome deception. That contradiction
seems to have completely eluded North, whose defense amounts to little more
than we meant well.
North doesn't intend to go the Gordon Liddy sacrificial-lamb route.
He has made it plain that his two decades of simpatico servility ceased
the moment his former associates began to equivocate about North's sterling
contribution to the righteous crusade they all once shared. The young man
who earnestly began fighting old men's wars in the 1960s has drawn his line
in the sand. Unlike the longhairs like myself in those years who foreswore
class and skin privilege and were willing to face prison if it meant stopping
our elders' ability to send the poor off to fight the poor, North balks
at the final step. If he has to go, he wants the company of his ex-cronies
on that trip, much as we would have liked Wayne Morse, William Fulbright,
and other pols to have chained themselves to the door of an induction center
while we were inside declaring our refusal to cooperate.
The difference is that we had no illusions that that might happen, and it's
almost poignant to witness North attempting to sift through the rubble of
his stark black-and-white vision of the world. The only way he'll receive
the plaudits he so badly wants is to realize he has to take his lumps alone,
consistent with the unyielding narrow-track role he has carved out for himself
for most of his life. Name-rank-and-serial number self-reliance, the solitary
ethos which sustained him for so long, is all he has left to redeem himself
Ollie North believed every shibboleth he was ever taught, and in the confluence
of Hollywood back-lot fantasy and the ad agency-inspired disinformation
of the 1980s, he came to personify our worst excesses as a country. He believed
in the lie, lied about the lie, and remains adamant about the lie. Evidently,
the one thing he never learned was that there is no honor among thieves.
Old Bill Casey could have told him about that, but didn't. He saw North
for what he was: a useful and malleable tool for the furtherance of the
darkest machinations of statecraft. Ollie was the man-of-the-hour, and although
his time has passed he gives every indication that his quest for an America
where it is always morning and everyone is a stand-up guy will be eternal.
It's sad enough for Lee Atwater to write a blues song about it all.
Copyright John Hutchison 1989