Ollie's our man

June 13, 1994|By Mona Charen

SEN. John Warner, R-Va., sits on his high horse. A veteran of the select committee to investigate the Iran/contra business, he now drinks his opinions from the purest liberal springs.

Trusting in his popularity poll numbers with George Bush-like certitude, he has undertaken to prevent Oliver North first from receiving the Republican nomination for the Senate and second from winning the general election.

The first project -- denying Mr. North the nomination -- was pursued with so much skill and finesse that it probably handed him the prize on a silver platter. Senator Warner held press conferences expressing his deep dismay at the prospect of serving with Mr. North in the Senate.

When this news failed to make Virginia Republicans fall into line, the senator and his allies were able to scare up a letter from Ronald Reagan expressing his (legitimate) misgivings about Mr. North.

When even the Reagan letter failed to stop the North campaign, Mr. Warner became increasingly frantic. And just at the time when Mr. North's able primary opponent, James Miller, former Office of Management and Budget director in the Reagan administration, was making a credible stab at wresting the nomination from Mr. North on his own, Senator Warner crashed in with the announcement that if the Republicans nominated Mr. North, he would leave the party.

That may have clinched the nomination for Ollie North. Mr. Warner likes to remind people that he is the most popular politician in Virginia. He may have the tense wrong. He is a perfect example of what so often happens to perfectly nice conservative politicians when they come to Washington. Entranced by the beautiful, powerful, liberal people who run things here -- they "grow" in office. That's why Mr. Warner, a Republican, has discovered that his delicate constitution cannot stomach the idea of serving with Oliver North. "We're not all like that," he seems to be saying to the Ben Bradlees of the world.

Even Sen. Bob Dole, nobody's fool, found himself saying that he wasn't sure the party could unite behind Ollie. He quickly backed away from that statement when it became clear that he had walked into a firestorm, but what is wrong with these Republicans?

Ollie North was not my first choice for the Senate nomination in Virginia. Jim Miller is more reliably conservative and less showy. Though the two would probably vote identically 90 percent of the time, I thought that Mr. Miller, because of his integrity, his intelligence and his manners, would have more influence with his colleagues. But Mr. North seems to be a better campaigner, and he won fair and square. He didn't shred any ballots or divert any funds to do it.

Why, if he and Mr. Miller are philosophically so much alike, did Ollie swamp him with a 10-point victory at the convention in Richmond? Because Republicans in Virginia are disgusted with Washington. They knew that Mr. Miller was solid as a rock, even to the right of Ollie -- an important consideration in a state where the party is becoming more conservative. But Mr. Miller didn't have the music. He didn't tap their resentment at government's arrogance. He didn't mine their fury at government's corruption. He didn't, couldn't, guarantee that by voting for him, they would be sending a message. One of the lines that got the most delighted applause in Mr. North's acceptance speech was an off-color promise not to go, hat in hand, to the bosses of Washington and "kiss their big . . . rings."

Ollie North was not, as some have suggested in the press, the unanimous choice of the religious right in Virginia. The religious right was split. But Mr. North was the choice of the angry.

Is he an embarrassment to the party? Well, is Sen. Edward Kennedy an embarrassment to his? What about Sen. Joseph Biden, a confessed plagiarist?

I don't happen to like the way Oliver North shades the truth. I especially don't like the fact that he seems to believe his own fibs. But anyone who has looked around the Senate lately will notice that it is full of human beings, with flaws big and small. If elected, Ollie North will vote right most of the time. He is the chosen nominee of rank-and-file Republicans in Virginia. And the national party, if it has any sense, will get behind him completely.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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