A minority backing North, but that may be enough

ON POLITICS

June 07, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

RICHMOND, Va. -- Oliver North seems to view politics as a holy war. His opponents are not just people who disagree with him but people beyond the pale -- the "Washington insiders" and "the professional politicians" and "the Washington crowd."

His message, he says, is the essence of simplicity: "This is our government, they stole it, and we're coming to take it back."

He is all defiance. "I've got news for them," he says of his enemies, real or imagined. "They will never see Ollie North crawling up the steps of Capitol Hill to kiss their big fat -- rings."

It is, of course, crowd-pleasing stuff at a time when so many Americans feel so hostile to the political establishment.

As George C. Wallace of Alabama did a generation ago, North touches every sore spot. Good old Ollie is going to stand up to those people if we just send him to the Senate, which is at least conceivable the way the Virginia campaign is developing.

North's militancy is, of course, a reaction to the political establishment's reaction against him.

But the former Marine officer's tirades against everyone in power miss the point. His problem lies not just with the political establishment but with everyone who remembers that as a member of the White House staff he violated the law in the Iran-contra affair and then lied to Congress about it repeatedly. He was convicted on three felony counts, although those convictions were later reversed on a technicality.

To North's supporters, that history is irrelevant. The delegates who gave him the Republican Party's Senate nomination here last weekend clearly felt that those felony convictions were just more evidence of the perfidious attempts by the political establishment to take down a genuine national hero.

Once they buy into that notion, these voters are clearly susceptible to the idea that the same motives are driving the opposition to his candidacy by such Republican leaders as Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia's most popular politician of the moment, and former President Ronald Reagan.

And they will see more of the same in the doubts about North expressed by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, both of whom have credentials from their military service at least as impressive as those of Oliver North.

North is, nonetheless, both unabashed and clever at feeding that paranoia among the good people of Virginia.

But what may be most intriguing is the fact, defined in one opinion poll after another, that those who buy into Ollie North are still a definite minority of the electorate.

They may make up the most ardent constituency in the state right now, but it is not one that would be a majority against any reasonably palatable opponent.

That qualification is, of course, the key to the Senate race here and conceivably to the contest for control of the Senate in the next two years.

North's Democratic opponent, Sen. Charles S. Robb, is not just a certified member of the establishment, but one carrying enormous political baggage of his own because of his personal life. If there were ever a candidate ripe to be depicted as the personification of the arrogance of power, it is Chuck Robb.

More to the point, however, is that the two candidates now expected to run as independents to save the state from the North-Robb choice, Republican Marshall Coleman and Democrat L. Douglas Wilder, easily can be pictured by North as further proof that everyone is ganging up on poor Ollie because he wants to change things in Washington.

With North's supporters, buying such an argument doesn't require a leap of faith. As a retired farmer from southwest Virginia -- "Buchanan County and proud of it" -- put it on the convention floor, "If he wasn't on to something, they wouldn't all be so determined to stop him. That's enough for me."

Or, as another North delegate, a druggist from Roanoke, said, "Those old boys are scared to death of him because he's going to stand up for us."

This is the essence of the politics of resentment -- the idea that there is some "they" up there in Washington with nothing in common with voters from Roanoke or Buchanan County and with some devious intentions all their own.

They don't make up a majority of the electorate, but they make Ollie North a very serious player in November.

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