OLIVER NORTH (22) - Profile
On July 7, 1987, a headline on the front of The Wall Street Journal asked a critical question: “Which Col. North Will Tell His Story to Nation: The Villain Who Deceived or Hero Who Obeyed?” Readers of Washingtonian magazine had voted Lt. Col. Oliver North the top villain of the year—and the biggest hero. It would have been an understatement to call “Ollie” a conundrum. Without a doubt, North was expected to be the star witness of the hearings. Starting the morning of the 7th, he did not disappoint. Just as the American people were listening to North’s testimony from day one, they were also watching the spectacle. “The day-long show proved again that Washington can still outdo Hollywood in the production of high-yield dramatic blockbusters,” declared The Washington Post. “Was he the good guy, the bad guy or the fall guy?” asked The Chicago Tribune. “On Tuesday he revealed himself as the wise guy.”
Taking place over six straight weekdays, North provided plenty of substance, too. At the start, he vowed, “I came here to tell you the truth—the good, the bad, and the ugly.” He acknowledged shredding key documents, but North maintained that his actions were in line with what his superiors wanted. North claimed that he saw a signed presidential Finding to ship arms to Iran and that President Reagan was aware of the private fundraising for the Contras. He also disclosed that the late CIA Director William Casey was aware of North’s activities, but he deliberately kept the secretaries of state and defense out of the loop. Indeed, North aimed to ensure “plausible deniability” among his superiors (including Reagan).
For all their serious topics, the North hearings will rightly be remembered in part due to their entertainment value. When questioned about using Enterprise money for a home security system, North told a compelling story about being willing to subject himself, but not his family, to a fight with terrorists. Referring to a prominent terrorist, he said, “I will be glad to meet Abu Nidal on equal terms anywhere in the world.” Dramatically, he defended his actions by saying that “lying does not come easy” to him, but he had to consider “the difference between lives and lies.” Brendan Sullivan, North’s tenacious lawyer, also joined in on the theatrics. By far the most vocal of all the witnesses’ lawyers, Sullivan objected frequently and declared that he was there as a lawyer, “not a potted plant.” The panel members became emotive, as well. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) made a public plea against future prosecution for North; Co-Chairman Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN) lectured North on patriotism.
Finally, Co-Chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), a World War II hero, wrapped up the six days with a memorable speech. Inouye reminded North about cadet honor, declaring, “Members of the military have an obligation to disobey unlawful orders.” Inouye made reference to the Nuremberg Trials, which set off Sullivan, who interrupted the co-chairman to say that his closing statement was “personally and professionally distasteful.” Undeterred, Inouye responded and then finished his speech with a Thomas Jefferson quotation about the importance of “the spirit of resistance to government.”
With that, on July 14, North’s week of testimony came to an end. As The Washington Post wrote, this section of the hearings proved to be “suspenseful, eventful and surprising up to the last scene of the last act.”