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Behind the Hero

The question put to congressional investigating panels by Lt. Col. Oliver L. North’s lawyer was both taunting and triumphant. “Why,” asked Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., “don’t you listen to the American people and what they’ve said as a result of the last week? There are 20,000 (pro-North) telegrams . . . that came in this morning. The American people have spoken!”

What the people said, as Sullivan would have it, is that they believe in North and are angry that some of their elected representatives have daredto express doubts about his judgment and rectitude. Sullivan’s implicit message was blunt: Ollie North has a lot of supporters out there, and members of Congress who value their political futures would be wise to remember that.

If basic questions of legal and ethical responsibility were things to be decided by a public show of hands, then maybe for an emotional day or two Ollie North might indeed have been able to claim popular forgiveness for what he did. But, as his lawyer certainly knows, that’s not the way things work. A witness at a congressional hearing is not a contestant on the “Original Amateur Hour,” whose fate depends on how well his performance pleases the audience. Our government and its legal system are not run by telegraphic plebiscites.

Frequently invoking God, country and a conveniently selective memory, North insisted throughout six days of testimony that whatever he did while on the National Security Council staff was legally correct, morally proper and always in the best interests of the nation. As various members of the committees eloquently reminded him in their summations, that’s not the way it was at all.

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By his own admission, North repeatedly lied to Congress on matters about which Congress has both the constitutional right and the responsibility to be kept fully and honestly informed. In so doing he and others involved with him in the misbegotten Iran- contra aid venture demonstrated either their ignorance of or--worse--their contempt for the vital bonds of trust that must exist in a democracy between the people and their elected officials and between the co-equal branches of government. Those who celebrate Ollie North as a patriot and a hero ought to be asking themselves what favors did he do for his country by scheming to undercut its democratic values, and exactly how did he serve its interests by conspiring to deceive the American people?


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