North isn't one for the boys

Dan Rodricks

December 05, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

Nobody asked me, but . . .

If I were the founder and moving force behind a club for boys, a club aimed at motivating, inspiring and calling to public service the leaders of tomorrow, I think I'd pass on the idea of having Oliver L. North as a guest speaker.

Judge Robert I.H. Hammerman, however, did not. I guess he thought it was a good idea.

Last summer, while vacationing in New Hampshire, Hammerman was thinking about guest speakers for the coming year. As founder and moving force behind the Lancers, one of Baltimore's venerable boys clubs, he's always making plans for the club's regular meetings. He likes to bring in well-known speakers, and has been successful at doing so. He's invited men mostly. "Celebrated men," is the term the judge uses. One assumes that these "celebrated men" would also be considered "male role models" for these boys, who are ages 14 to 17.

To this end, Hammerman has solicited, among many others, Brooks Robinson, Johnny Unitas and Kurt Schmoke, the Baltimore mayor being perhaps the most distinguished Lancer alumnus.

Brooks, Johnny U. and Schmoke -- all good guys. Role models. Add to that list numerous governors, senators, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps, and NAACP director Benjamin Hooks.

But this time, Hammerman focused on Oliver North, the retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and key figure in the Iran-contra scandal. The choice might seem odd. But perhaps Hammerman's decision to go after North coincided with the July court decision that vacated North's three convictions: aiding the Iran-contra coverup, shredding National Security Council documents and accepting an illegal gift from an arms dealer. The appellate court that vacated Colonel Shred's convictions also ordered a hearing to determine if his trial had been tainted by an unconstitutional use against him of testimony he gave congressional investigators under a promise of immunity.

When I spoke with him yesterday, Hammerman was quick to point that out. He is a judge, after all. He knows that, as the case stands now, Oliver North is not convicted of any crime. He might have lied because he felt Congress couldn't be trusted, might have been the ActionJackson behind a cynical plan to sell arms for hostages in Iran and use the proceeds to fund the contras in Nicaragua, against a congressional ban on such aid. But Ollie North is technically innocent. Or not guilty. Anyway, this seems to have had some impact on Judge Hammerman's thinking.

So, though his stature as role model is questionable, North agreed to come to Baltimore. He came a couple of weeks ago and spoke to 164 young Lancers. He had dinner with the club's officers at 6 o'clock, made a formal address at 7:45 and answered questions. He posed for photographs with the boys and didn't charge for autographs. He didn't even ask for his usual $25,000 fee for his usually self-serving lecture.

"He was very gracious," Hammerman said. "He spoke and answered questions. And the questions the boys asked were hard. He was asked some very, very hard questions. One boy asked, 'Is it all right to lie?' North said it was never proper to lie but, if you're in a certain situation, while it might seem bad to lie, it might be worse if you don't.' He was asked what he thought of Reagan. He never said how he felt about him personally. He just pointed out that the country was better off at the end of Reagan's term than at the start. He was asked specific questions about Iran-contra. He was asked if, in Vietnam, he had ever received an illegal order and what you're supposed to do if you do receive one. He said you don't obey it. He said he was never given an illegal order, though afterward, after Vietnam, he heard that illegal orders [were given]." That's all perfectly dandy. The boys sound like a bright group. But was Ollie North really a good choice as their featured speaker?

"We don't endorse anybody's views," Hammerman said. "We don't impress political views upon the boys. It's important to expose these boys to celebrated men, to give them a chance to question and challenge them. It enriches their understanding of the world. . . . North spoke of the wonderful value of bonding at a young age. He spoke of commitment to our country, to our society and to the public good. He spoke of the need to feel appreciated."

Poor Ollie. That's always been a sore point. He hasn't felt appreciated in a long time. So, in that regard, I'm sure he welcomed an invitation to speak to the Lancers. Probably did him more good than it did the boys.

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