Ollie North reveals personal self, but little new on the Iran-contra mystery

November 24, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Mr. Denniston covers the Supreme Court for The Sun.

UNDER FIRE:

AN AMERICAN STORY.

Oliver L. North

with William Novak.

HarperCollins.

416 pages. $25.

The Iran-contra scandal -- once the political cancer that nearly destroyed Ronald Reagan's presidency -- continues as a low-grade infection in the American body politic. It never seems quite cured -- or curable.

Now comes Ollie North to remind us anew of this seemingly chronic irritant. The nation may well be uncomfortable with this reminder, because Mr. North does not offer America much help in clearing its head about this whole sick affair.

Mr. North was not single-handedly the cause of the scandal; he could not have been, given its scope and complexity. But he was its most active single participant, and he -- more than most -- was in a position to see practically everything that went on behind the scenes. He, more than most, should have been able to tell us who else was to blame, why and how -- in explicit detail.

He tried to do some of that when he defended himself in court against the criminal charges. But that could not have been a time for the full telling; the inhibiting rules of criminal evidence, and the stubborn intolerance of the trial judge toward much of Mr. North's defense strategy, kept much of the story out of the courtroom. Mr. Reagan, of course, was never a witness.

Now, having at hand Mr. North's surprise autobiography (prepared in secret with writer William Novak in a Dulles Airport hotel room and sprung unheralded upon the public), America can read Ollie North's version: one full, unrestricted chance to tell it his way. And, America might well have expected to be told all that he was capable of telling.

But, when one puts down this book, Mr. North has left us with these conclusions:

* We still do not know what President Reagan's role was; the blame that Mr. North would so freely place upon the former president is not grounded in hard, acceptable fact. A lot of it is pure supposition.

* We still do not know what George Bush's role was. President Bush, who was vice president when the scandalous misdeeds occurred, has always been a shadowy presence at or near the core of the scandal. Mr. North keeps him in that role. The deep suspicion remains about Mr. Bush, and this book, in fact, increases the suspicion. But the evidence to provide clarity about Mr. Bush is not there. (The president, of course, continues to be much less than forthcoming about all of it.)

* And, while we now know a good deal more in detail, from Mr. North himself, about what he says he did and did not do, we cannot yet be sure how that fits in with what was done by the other actors -- Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush included.

To be fair about it, Mr. North does not promise to tell all. On the opening page of his "foreword," we are told: "This book is my personal story. I will leave to others the task of producing the definitive history of Iran-contra -- assuming that's even possible. . . . I doubt that any one individual could possibly know the whole story. I was right in the middle of these events, and there are still things I don't know."

But, ungenerous though it may be to say so, there probably are not very many readers of books in this country who are greatly interested in anything else about Oliver North's life. His personal story has its own merit, as does everybody's, and his is of as much interest as that of perhaps any other celebrity. It is good to know at least something about the person behind the star.

But there is a definite narcissism in Mr. North, a self-fascination that surely exceeds the interest others might have in him. To what might be an average reader, this book tells more than one really cares to know about Oliver North the man. (And the truly sad part about this part of the book is that the very dullest parts, the most blandly written, devoid almost of humanity, are the chapters of personal history. Consider even the tales told of his Marine combat service in Vietnam: no smoke, no heat, no stench of war rises from these empty annals.)

Oliver North, like it or not, is Oliver North of the Iran-contra scandal. If he did not make it, it made him. He is the man whose name will forever be linked with the worst there is in the history of Ronald Reagan and his presidency, and who will always be remembered that way, no matter what else he may yet do with his life.

It is in that role that he owes a burden to history. It may be folly (and, arguably, unfair) to lay such a burden upon him. He has carried the load enough, for any one human being, throughout the entire national disgrace over the Iran arms sales and the secret war of the contras, and he has carried his load with a good deal more serenity and poise than some others involved (including, one must say, two presidents).

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