Treated as "a covert operation" and released to the press and public with just a few days' advance warning, "Under Fire" is being published with a fanfare worthy of the Iran-Contra hearings themselves. The book's huge press run (half a million copies) and media blitz (including excerpts trumpeted on the cover of Time and two consecutive appearances on ABC's "Nightline") bring no small degree of importance to the question of the book's intent and worth.
Is this, as North and professional wordsmith William Novak claim, a "personal story" in which the principal bares his soul in the hallowed autobiographical tradition of proving himself "neither saint nor hero" but ordinary mortal involved in "sometimes less than perfect" activities? Or is it a slickly crafted version of the self-serving statements which North and his attorneys have been publicizing since the former National Security Council aide first became larger than life through his appearances on national TV 4 1/2 years ago?
Alas, after reading all or even excerpted parts of "Under Fire," even the most casual follower of Iran-Contra will be tempted to conclude the latter.
It is not that North and Novak's work lacks a frequent ring of sincerity and authenticity. Rather, the fault with this casually constructed rambling through Iran-Contra is that it fails, largely by omission, to engage most of the central questions posed by an impressive, and growing, array of ideologically diverse Iran-Contra- era authors, including Ben Bradlee Jr., Theodore Draper, Michael Ledeen, Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus, Constantine Menges, Joseph Persico, Leslie Cockburn, and Bob Woodward.
If North has read any of these and other probes into the affair's legal and political complexities, he fails to show it in "Under Fire." Just about the only criticism he considers is the contention by the Miami Herald's Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Alfonso Chardy that one of North's tasks at the National Security Council was to draw up contingency plans for suspending the Constitution and rounding up dissidents in case of nuclear war or some other national emergency. Without referring to Chardy by name, North and Novak call his article "bombastic and outrageous."
This backhand slap at a critic is typical of the seemingly oblivious but actually highly political stance taken throughout "Under Fire." An unsophisticated reader--or an unqualified believer in North's version of his activities--can be transported smoothly on wings of North and Novak's seamless narrative. But the constant subtext--and, indeed, one suspects the real reason for the appearance of this premature, incomplete, semi-autobiography at this time--is that here is a man to admire, adore, buy from, or, now that his felony convictions have been reversed on a technicality, perhaps vote for.
What, then, does one learn about Oliver North, candidate, from his autobiography? That he holds himself legally blameless for most of the Reagan-era covert shenanigans because of an (undocumented) belief that "President Reagan knew everything," although "he didn't always know what he knew."
As for North's legal entanglements, they are not, as many have supposed, a consequence of North's unauthorized machinations but the work of "a lynch mob in pin-striped suits," a gang of lawyers directed by an independent counsel whose office "has become a pervasive and powerful machine, a legalistic tank that can roll over and flatten its victims beneath its unlimited size, time, and money."
North and Novak paint their subject as a sometimes unwilling, but quickly adept, convert from a life of military adventure in Vietnam to an exhausting existence as political tightrope walker in Washington. In the book's most sympathetic pages, North invokes those political pillars of Bible and family. But his tenderness and concern are usually eclipsed by a combative us-versus-them pose, be "they" enemies in Vietnam, members of Congress, or the press ("a crowd of jackals waiting for the flesh to come flying their way").
That North's sense of duty and morality steer by a highly subjective compass was evident from his first public appearances during the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings. In "Under Fire," there is more evidence that the would-be, gung-ho officer, ready to salute, shout "Yes, sir!" and charge up any deadly hill, sometimes did what he damn well pleased. For example, at a critical moment of the attempted Iran-Contra cover-up, North tells us that he failed to follow a direct order from his superior, Robert McFarlane, to alter documents, not because it was wrong to change them but because "I just didn't see the point."
One of the oft-repeated criticisms of Iran-Contra is that it was an exercise, as Theodore Draper puts it, "in playing fast and loose with Constitutional restraints." "Under Fire" will provide the affair's many critics with more ammunition showing just how fast and how loose that playing could be. North, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and instructor in battlefield tactics, admits he "had no business being assigned to the NSC" in 1981, where he was "over my head."
Yet, armed only with what he says was the approval of then CIA director William Casey and the benign surveillance of National Security Advisers McFarlane and John Poindexter, North very soon found himself in a determinative role concerning the most sensitive affairs of state, including highly classified weapons sales, government-to-government negotiations, contingency plans for governmental disruption, and, eventually, of course, in tasks for which he seems to have been uniquely unsuited: negotiating weapons for hostages and running a secret army alongside skilled profiteers. If North has any understanding of why or how he rose so meteorically, or how he remained sometimes ludicrously unsuited for his new role (as in negotiations with the Iranians), it's not evident in "Under Fire."
All autobiographies are self-serving, of course, and the self which "Under Fire" serves does not seem an unpleasant one. North comes across as a somewhat humble, occasionally introspective person of deep convictions and passions: concerned about morality, secure in the love and support of his friends and family, and perhaps even capable of growth and change.
It is, however, difficult to reconcile this image with the rigid, foul-mouthed prevaricator so often depicted elsewhere by his colleagues and contemporaries. And North fails to take the opportunity to explain his dubious personal finances, as exposed during his trial, or to answer critics, such as conservative ideologue John Singlaub, who allege that his activities were not only counterproductive but heavily self-interested.
It is also difficult to see how in the future--toward whose preparation this book is so obviously written--the North of private penance will reconcile himself with the narrow-minded North of political belligerence, the eternal soldier of God's America, unforgiving and (as the Nicaraguans can attest) merciless toward those who fail to share his essentially theocratic view of an electoral monarchy that should rule the world.
During the first of what will doubtless be many factual disputes based on North and Novak's narrative, an ostensible ideological ally, conservative businessman H. Ross Perot, told "Nightline's" Ted Koppel that North is a man "who wouldn't step forward and tell the truth (and) is now just willing to sell the truth."
If, indeed, the "truth" could be for sale, it would be hard to imagine it better packaged for best-sellerdom than here in "Under Fire."