North is unique strain of celebrity candidate

ON POLITICS

January 31, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The phenomenon of the celebrity candidate is nothing new in American politics. There was George Murphy, the movie song-and-dance man, getting elected to the Senate from California in 1964, two years before Grade B movie actor Ronald Reagan got elected governor there, and All-Pro quarterback Jack Kemp being sent to the House from New York in 1970.

There was John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, elected to the Senate from Ohio in 1974, and Bill Bradley, the New York Knicks' All-Pro basketball star, voted to the Senate from New Jersey in 1978. There was John McCain, Vietnam POW, sent to the House from Arizona in 1982 and to the Senate in 1986; Bob Kerrey, decorated Vietnam combat veteran elected governor of Nebraska in 1983 and senator in 1988; television actor Fred Grandy from Iowa and former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jim Bunning from Kentucky, both voted into the House in 1986.

But Oliver North, with his formal declaration of candidacy for the Senate from Virginia, adds a new dimension: a celebrity -- and there can be no denying he has become one -- who admitted lying to Congress.

While it is true that North's conviction of lying to Congress in the Iran-contra hearings was overturned, that action resulted not from any evidence to the contrary, but rather because an appellate court ruled that the conviction was tainted by use of testimony immunized by Congress.

It was a classic case of Congress, in its eagerness to assert its investigative function, poisoning the efforts of the judicial process to bring a defendant to justice.

Virginia's senior and Republican senator, John Warner, is refusing to swallow the fact of North's conduct toward Congress. "So far as we know," he told television interviewer Larry King, "no one in the history of the United States Senate -- this is since 1789 -- has ever sat in this chamber that was convicted of a felony, and although there was a technical reversal . . . what sort of signal does that send to the younger generation?"

To which North replied on the King show: "I know what it's like to be an outsider trying to break into what they consider an exclusive country club."

On the same interview show, former national security adviser Robert McFarlane, another Iran-contra figure, asked: "Can you imagine the first day that North chairs the subcommittee and asks somebody to stand and swear that they will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? When he had lied again and again to senators and congressmen? This is not a man that ought to represent anybody."

North's answer to a retired military officer calling in and labeling him "a disgrace to the uniform" he wore as a Marine colonel, was that "I told the truth, and the truth hurt." The question in his congressional testimony, he said, was "integrity. It means keeping your word. I kept my word to the Nicaraguan resistance. I kept my word to the hostages and their families. I've kept my word to our president . . . I am not ashamed of what we did in saving lives. I'm not going to apologize for it."

The problem, he said, was he was "put in the predicament" of being caught in a "political contest between the legislative and executive branch of government." That is the same argument former President George Bush used in rebuffing the allegations of special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh that he was up to his ears in the White House cover-up of Iran-contra.

North may not apologize, but it seems clear he will have to spend a great deal of his time as a candidate answering questions about his conduct in the affair, and his acknowledged deceptions to Congress.

Some of the biggest celebrity names in public office have turned out to be excellent public servants once their celebrity opened the first key door for them. But they gained their celebrity by being law-abiding citizens as well as sports or entertainment stars or war heroes. North's candidacy will test whether celebrity can clear a hurdle that almost certainly would deter the average non-celebrity from even trying to jump.

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