Reagan attack violates his old political credo

ON POLITICS

March 21, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Well, so much for the 11th Commandment.

That, most active Republicans and political junkies of all sorts know, is the old Ronald Reagan credo: "Thou Shall Not Speak Ill of Another Republican."

It is one that Reagan used repeatedly in his political career to stay out of Republican primaries, to sustain his image as Mr. Nice Guy and to encourage fellow Republicans to save their fire for the Democrats.

He is said by Reagan biographer Lou Cannon to have endorsed a Republican only once in a congressional primary in New York, and on that occasion said nothing against the man's opponent.

But the Gipper has now conspicuously violated his commandment by tearing into his former White House national security aide, Oliver North, for making "false statements" about his knowledge of the Iran-contra affair and one-on-one "private meetings he said he had with me [that] just didn't happen."

The attack, in a letter to his old friend and political ally, former Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, figures to be the best hope for former Reagan budget director Jim Miller to upset North in their fight for the GOP senatorial nomination in Virginia.

The fact that the letter went to Laxalt suggests that the idea of speaking out did not bloom unnourished by an array of former Reagan administration figures who have been conspicuously outspoken against North. They include former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Secretaries of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci and former Attorney General Ed Meese.

What they all see as North's efforts to shift blame for the Iran-contra fiasco on higher-ups in the Reagan administration, including the president himself, has produced the unusual spectacle of high-level back-biting that under ordinary circumstances might bury North's nomination chances.

But the former Marine colonel has built and maintained an impressive political following of true believers with his super-patriotism and an assault on the "Washington insiders" of whom he once was a part. In a news conference, North dismissed those behind the Reagan letter as practicing "Washington-insider politics at its very worst."

Until now, opposition to North within the Republican Party had been spearheaded by the state's senior senator, John Warner, who has said that North's admission that he lied to Congress and his subsequent conviction made him unqualified to serve in that body.

North's conviction was later thrown out on the technical grounds it had been tainted by testimony he had given to Congress under a grant of immunity from prosecution. In typical fashion, North has claimed he was vindicated.

None of North's GOP foes greeted the Reagan letter more enthusiastically than Warner. "Oliver North has betrayed President Reagan, he has betrayed the American people and now he is trying to betray the people of Virginia," he said. He called on North to withdraw, but North made clear he has no intention of pulling stakes.

Indeed, he shot back a reply to Reagan claiming the former president had been "seriously and intentionally misinformed about my service on your National Security Council staff" and that his words had been "intentionally taken out of context . . . to salvage a floundering political campaign against me."

That lament has been a frequent one from the man who often brags about misleading Congress to protect the free-lance mission to keep the Nicaragua contras armed in defiance of a congressional prohibition.

Whether a single critical letter from Reagan will be enough to derail North is questionable.

The Reagan letter may in the long run prove to be of greater damage to North if the former Marine becomes the Republican nominee and faces, as expected, Democratic Sen. Charles Robb in November.

Robb's own candidacy is plagued by allegations of personal misconduct when he was governor, but the prospect of running against a GOP nominee under fire within his own party at the highest levels may give Robb his best hope for survival.

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