Ronald Reagan probably owes his career to "the Eleventh Commandment" -- "Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of Any Fellow Republican." The rule was enunciated by the California Republican chairman in 1966 when Mr. Reagan first ran for office. It stopped attacks on his inexperience during the gubernatorial primary, and Mr. Reagan won the nomination, then the governorship. He has steadfastly obeyed the commandment ever since.
Until now. Mr. Reagan's former budget director, James C. Miller III, who is running against Oliver North for the Republican senatorial nomination in Virginia, last week released a letter Mr. Reagan wrote that is highly critical of Mr. North.
The letter was sent to Paul Laxalt, an old Reagan friend. Mr. Laxalt apparently provoked the letter by telling the ex-president that Mr. North was harming his place in history when he claimed on the campaign trail that President Reagan had ordered him to divert Iran arms sales profits to the contras and lie about it all to Congress. "I'm getting pretty steamed about the statements coming from Oliver North," he wrote. He said they were "false."
There have been many accusations that Mr. North is untruthful. He has dismissed most of them to the satisfaction of his followers by branding his critics elitists and liberals. Yet his GOP foes are good conservatives, such as Sen. John Warner, R-Va., but Mr. North appears to have gotten away with it. His admitted lies to Congress have been a plus to some of the more savage conservatives of Virginia. At a recent candidates' debate, Mr. Miller promised, in a reference to Mr. North's activities when on the White House staff, never to compromise constitutional principles. He was hissed.
The current North strategy seems to be to admit some errors and claim that others were twisted in the reporting back to Mr. Reagan. It may work. Most of the delegates to the Republican nominating convention have already been chosen, and most seem to be more in the Pat Robertson-Jerry Falwell camp than in the John Warner mainstream. Many are, in fact, more interested in defeating Senator Warner in the 1996 GOP primary than in defeating Charles Robb, the state's Democratic senator, this year. Mr. North or Mr. Miller will face Mr. Rabb, assuming he wins re-nomination, which is likely but not certain, especially if former Gov. Douglas Wilder decides to run in the Democratic primary.
As for 1994, one letter from Ronald Reagan is not going to get Jim Miller nominated. The former president and others who feel as he does about his former aide will have to make a truly gung-ho effort to stop Ollie North.