TV made North famous, but now his show is over


September 18, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

It seemed like such a good idea to try Ollie North by television.

Not only would television "clear up" the unanswered questions about the Iran-contra scandal, but it would give the congressmen and senators a lot of air time.

This was no small consideration. There were careers to be made. And they were to be made on CNN and Nightline and MacNeil/Lehrer.

Look at the Watergate hearings. Some formerly obscure lawmakers did very, very well on those. (Paul Sarbanes, come on down!) And there was only one small problem, a show biz problem.

Though the lawmakers knew the people involved in Iran-contra were guilty as sin -- my gosh, the weight of evidence was incredible -- how could the guilty be forced to admit it on live TV?

In America nobody can be compelled to testify against himself. That's what the Fifth Amendment is all about.

But what a terrible TV show it would make to have Ollie North sit behind a red felt-covered table and take the Fifth Amendment for 10 days.

The networks would stop covering it. Even C-Span would probably pull the plug. Well, actually, C-Span probably wouldn't pull the plug. But everyone else would.

And what good would that do? If the ratings were lousy, there would be no point to the hearings.

But there was a way around all this. Ollie could be given immunity and forced to testify. Nothing he said could be used against him in court, but who cared as long as it was good TV?

A few people disagreed. A few argued that if Ollie North was given immunity, he might sing like a canary but also escape conviction.

One of those who did make that argument in the summer of 1987 was Lawrence E. Walsh, the Special Prosecutor on the case. He knew that certain members of Congress were going to screw up his legal case in order to get their mugs on the nightly news.

But there was nothing he could do. The public wanted to know and the public wanted to know now, Congress said.

So let's grant immunity and set up the spotlights and break out the Pancake No. 6 and get this show on the tube.

And Ollie was great on the tube: Lean, handsome, tightly cinched into his Marine uniform with seven rows of ribbons and medals on his chest.

Overnight he became America's sweetheart. Which was not quite what Congress had in mind.

But he was so perfectly cast. And his delivery: Firm! Resolute! Straight-forward!

Had he lied to Congress? Yes! Had he lied to the American people? Yes! Had he shredded and altered documents rather than let them fall into the hands of the Justice Department? Yes!

So what? He did it all because he loved his president and he loved his country.

The public ate this guy up with a spoon. There was even a name for it: Olliemania.

Tom Brokaw said Ollie was like something that had stepped off a "Norman Rockwell canvas." John Chancellor said that his "terrific performance" had "played in Peoria." Ted Koppel said North held "an entire nation enthralled." Dan Rather said it was "Washington theater at its best."

I went to the hearings to catch Ollie live. According to the script that Congress had written, he was supposed to be a broken man, shattered by the hammering of his questioners. But I watched him sign autographs on the copy of Time magazine that bore his picture on the cover.

Broken? Shattered? Over what? What did he have to be ashamed of? In America the notorious and the famous are indistinguishable.

And Americans seeing him did not judge Ollie North by his past actions. They judged him by his current performance.

My favorite moment came at the end of the second day of the hearings. North closed his document book, smiled a weary smile, picked up his glasses and Marine garrison cap and got ready to leave the hearing room.

"What do you think?" a reporter asked him.

"I think I'll go home and have a Coors," North said. And he emphasized the word "Coors." It became, of course, national news.

And Joseph Coors, who had given $65,000 to a private concern linked to North which used the money to buy an airplane for the contras, could not have been displeased.

That is how much of a TV creature Ollie North had become: He was doing beer commercials!

Oh, he went to trial, all right. A big mess of a trial. The trick was, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals, to find a jury and witnesses who had never heard anything about what Ollie North had said under his grant of immunity.

That's right, the judges wanted to find Americans who didn't watch much TV. Americans who had been vacationing the last four years on Pluto, for instance.

And when it was admitted by the prosecution that it was nearly impossible to find anyone untainted by Ollie's star power, the case collapsed.

"He's been through enough," President Bush said upon hearing the news.

Yes, having been through four years of free publicity, Ollie North is now free to cash in.

It is said he makes up to $25,000 a speech, but how long can that last?

It is said he has a future in politics. A year ago, Richard Viguerie, the conservator fund-raiser, said: "Ollie North can run for president. The money will be there for him."

Maybe. But will the interest in Ollie North really be around much longer?

Because that's the trouble with TV stars. Once their series gets canceled, they fade real fast.

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