North talk stirs up controversy

February 28, 1994|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Sun Staff Writer

Former White House aide Oliver L. North, who admittedly tried to cover up an illegal guns-for-hostages deal as a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, lectured on "family, trust and commitment" last night before an audience of nearly 350 at Towson State University.

But by the end of the evening, the audience had heard more from Mr. North's detractors -- and, in turn, his supporters, who tried to outshout the hecklers -- than they had from the retired Marine lieutenant colonel now seeking Virginia's Republican senatorial nomination.

The protests began early. Before Mr. North arrived, pickets pro and con were lined up on opposing sides of the entrance to the Towson Center.

On one side were more than 30 representatives from a half-dozen campus groups, including the Diverse Sexual Orientation Collective, the Black Student Union, the Jewish Student Association and the Feminist Collective.

The supporters were mostly young Republican activists wearing "Ollie for Senate" stickers on their coats and signs.

Inside the Towson Center auditorium, the battle of viewpoint continued even as Mr. North attempted to speak.

He tried to touch on his announced topic, but everything he said seemed to touch off a land mine.

He brought up Nicaragua, home of the contra resistance effort he supported.

"That required that I make commitments in the name of this nation because Ronald Reagan had made commitments to those resistance fighters and to the families of hostages," he told the crowd, but he was interrupted by a heckler wanting to know what the Republican Party was going to do about AIDS.

Five minutes of bickering among audience members ensued.

He touched briefly on families, calling them "the building blocks of our country," and he criticized big government as not "protective" enough of families. High taxes are threatening family income, he said.

Again he was interrupted by detractors who called him a "liar" and shouted questions about such issues as his stand on gays in the military and condoning racist remarks -- which he denied.

The heckling became so pronounced that Mr. North cut his speech short and allowed the rest of the time to be given over to questions.

He never got to the topic of trust, a critical issue for the ex-national security aide who admittedly arranged the sale of arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages. He diverted the profits to finance the anti-Communist movement of contra rebels in Nicaragua, during a congressional ban on such aid.

When a student asked Mr. North how he could justify running for the Senate after admitting to such conduct, his answer was, "I'm probably the only person running for public

office who has gotten up and admitted to making mistakes."

While his response didn't satisfy the questioner, it won Mr. North applause from many in the audience, the majority of whom supported the ex-Marine.

Mr. North won the support of millions of Americans as his image became a mainstay of television in July 1987 during testimony in a congressional investigation admitting he shredded documents and otherwise attempted to cover up his illegal activity.

In 1989, he was convicted of three felony charges related to the activities.

But later his convictions were overturned by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that statements he made while under immunity from prosecution might have influenced the outcome of his trial.

Even before the court set aside his convictions, however, Mr. North was parlaying his notoriety into a successful lecture circuit, reportedly earning as much as $25,000 per appearance.

Towson's Student Government Association, which arranged last night's lecture, paid $10,000 for Mr. North's appearance.

His 1991 autobiography, "Under Fire," was a best seller and last fall he came out with another book, "One More Mission," recounting his Marine service in Vietnam in the 1960s and a 1993 return trip.

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