WASHINGTON — Washington.--"Most people don't give a rat's patootie'' about the Iran-Contra scandal, says Virginia Senate candidate Oliver North. I'm not sure what a patootie is, but I know a rat when I smell one. Does the Republican party?
So far the party leadership has taken no position on the possibility that a proven and unapologetic lawbreaker might be the GOP's Senate nominee. Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour has been silent. A spokesman says the committee never expresses a preference in intra-party races. Virginia's Gov. George Allen says he will support whomever the party nominates at its convention in June.
That won't do. The Republican leadership was more than happy to dissociate itself from the racist David Duke, even after he won the party's nomination for governor of Louisiana in 1991. Some candidates are considered beyond the pale. The question is whether Ollie North fits in this category. Among leading Republicans only Virginia's other senator, John Warner, has declared that Mr. North is unfit to serve. For this he is being pilloried as disloyal.
Mr. North says that he was ''completely exonerated'' of criminal wrongdoing when the Court of Appeals vacated his convictions. This is flatly wrong. The court held that witnesses in Mr. North's trial might have been affected by Mr. North's congressional testimony, for which he had been promised immunity from prosecution. But nothing in the Appeals Court's ruling implied that the evidence used to convict Mr. North was inaccurate or untrustworthy.
So he benefited from one of those ''technicalities'' conservatives ordinarily hate so much because they allow criminals to go free in deference to some other policy consideration. That's fine. As a liberal, I of course love those technicalities. But they do not require us to pretend that the criminal is not a criminal.
Indeed, because of the grant of immunity, the jury was never even allowed to consider Mr. North's own testimony directly. In that testimony he openly boasted of various crimes (knowing that the more he revealed in immunized testimony, the less he could be convicted of). According to independent pros- ecutor Lawrence Walsh's final report:
''For six days, North admitted to having assisted the contras during the [legal] prohibition on U.S. aid, to having shredded and removed from the White House official documents, to having converted traveler's checks for his personal use, to having participated in the creation of false chronologies of the U.S. arms sales, to having lied to Congress and to having accepted a home security system . . . and then fabricating letters regarding payments for the system.''
As Mr. Walsh's report makes clear, a true legal reckoning of Mr. North's crimes was thwarted by more than just the problem of immunized testimony. The Reagan administration refused to declassify documents Mr. North claimed to need for his defense, making prosecution on the central conspiracy charge impossible. Ollie's own ''shredding party,'' other destruction of evidence, and lying and convenient lapses of memory by various witnesses didn't help.
Mr. North would like to spin the whole Iran-contra prosecution as a liberal vendetta against Reaganism. His campaign adviser, Richard Viguerie, says his campaign pitch will be, ''Imagine the look on the faces of the Senators who tried to destroy the conservative, anti-communist movement'' when they find Ollie among them. Mr. North told the New York Times he deserves credit for freeing the hostages and bringing democracy to Nicaragua.
Republicans should keep in mind, therefore, that whatever Mr. North was up to, it wasn't exactly a defense of Reaganite principles. President Reagan's own defense has always been that he was ignorant of Mr. North's activities. His Iran-contra lawyer, Peter Wallison, had a piece in the Washington Post the other day wittily entitled, ''Iran-Contra: the Butlers Did It.''
To be sure, this is just a continuation of the infuriatingly successful Iran-contra round-robin cover-up technique, in which the higher-ups blamed the lower-downs and the lower-downs blamed the higher-ups, while each group winked at the other.
Leaving legality aside, what about the central act of the scandal: trading arms for hostages? Mr. North has brilliantly spun this as some sort of macho heroic enterprise, opposed only by limp-wristed liberals. In fact, it was a craven pandering to terrorism that went against everything Mr. Reagan claimed to stand for.
As for the Nicaraguan contras, leaving legality aside once again, the case is more complicated. But when Congress finally cut off contra aid for good after Mr. North's escapade was exposed, President Reagan and company claimed that whatever happened next in Nicaragua was on the consciences of contra-aid opponents.
When what happened next was a democratic election, they were quick to change their story and claim credit.
Because Oliver North is popular, his Senate candidacy poses a genuine dilemma for the Republican hierarchy. Unfortunately, they don't even seem to be agonizing over it -- let alone coming up with the right answer.
TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.