Ollie North: In the populist tradition

June 14, 1994|By William Rees-Mogg

ONE should always listen to populist politicians. Their particular skill is to identify, flatter and reinforce public moods. If the mood is not there, the populism will not be there. They act therefore like trace elements in an X-ray, showing where the trouble is. That is why German political commentators ought to have been listening to Adolf Hitler in the 1920s. Modern commentators on America ought to be listening to Ollie North now. As Alexander Pope wrote, in one of his most modern-sounding verses, "The people's voice is odd; it is, and it is not, the voice of God."

To compare Mr. North with Hitler is not intended to besmirch him; there have been good, bad and indifferent populists, even religious and holy populists. John Wesley was a populist, and so is Billy Graham. Yet all populists are in the same line of business. They use the subconscious and irrational emotions of people in the mass to promote either themselves or the causes that they support.

The populist element in fascism was its political dynamic. Yet democratic politics is also driven by subconscious emotional forces. The "real" arguments of politics -- the options of policy, the relationships of power, the theories of economics -- are not what draws the public to the polls. There are moments when the subconscious mind of the public wills something that a particular party or leader can identify with. Then the excitement grows, then comes the landslide. When the populist really strikes home to the deepest layers of the public mind, politics can become a wild onrush, like a cavalry charge.

Whatever else he may be, Ollie North is a committed populist; that is how he won the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in Virginia. People are now saying that he has made too many enemies, that he has offended President Reagan, that the sitting Republican senator from Virginia, John Warner, is against him and that therefore he will not win in November. It is true that high-minded persons like ourselves would not vote for Ollie North, because we perceive that he is more than something of a knave and more than something of a fool. But most of the !B readers of this column are not the Virginia electorate. The probability is that he will be elected because he speaks to Virginians in the language they wish to hear. His enemies will be seen as their enemies; the scorn of the high-minded, however justified, is part of his political capital.

What is Ollie North saying? He tells his audiences that Washington is hopelessly corrupt, having been taken over by self-serving professional politicians without patriotism, without Christian principles, without care for the American people. He puts this in popular language. One can savor every word, rolling them around one's palate like the brandy of reaction:

"Today we send the Clintons and their cronies a simple but unmistakable message: This is our government. You stole it, and we're going to take it back. We are besieged by a liberal government that is up to its caboose in the peccadilloes and personal distractions of its president. . . . Virginians are sick and tired of a Congress run by back-slapping good old boys, and a White House governed by a bunch of twentysomething kids with an earring and an ax to grind. They will never see Ollie North crawling up the steps of Capitol Hill to kiss their big, fat [dramatic pause] rings."

I do not imagine that Ollie North takes his ideas directly from Jean Jacques Rousseau, though one can never be sure; some populists are drawn to authors who expressed similar ideas at earlier periods. Yet the echoes of Rousseau can be heard. He makes the contrast between the uncorrupted people and their corrupt government; he exalts the public will above the constitutional government; he sees himself as the romantic hero; he believes in what the textbooks refer to as normative irrationalism: Virginians are born free, but Washington has put them in chains.

There was a smell of brimstone about Rousseau, whose ideas inspired the Jacobins, as the Jacobins caused the Terror. There is a real stink of brimstone about the late-20th century, right-wing Rousseauism of Ollie North. Although he poses as a superpatriot, he is, and always has been, a subversive in terms of the American Constitution, just as Rousseau was subversive of the 18th-century constitution of France.

Yet one should look not so much at the doctrine as at its emotional appeal. Why has the American constitutional structure, both president and Congress, become so alienated from the American people that this sort of right-wing populism is attractive?

The alienation between ordinary Americans and their constitutional government is the serious message of Ollie North. He may reach the Senate -- he probably will -- and may even run in the presidential primaries, but he is not going to reach the White House. He is not the great American cancer, but (to use his own metaphor) a boil on the caboose of the United States. He is a symptom of political infection, rather than the focus of infection himself.

William Rees-Mogg writes from Washington for the Times of London.

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