Saturday, July 7, 2012

'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'

"I came here to tell you the truth — the good, the bad and the ugly."

Lt. Col. Oliver North
July 7, 1987

A good word to describe Oliver North when he began his Iran–Contra testimony a quarter of a century ago would be defiant.

He seemed to enter the hearing room with a chip on his shoulder, and he was all too eager to defend the secret policy he had been carrying out.

Many Americans probably heard his name for the first time when Ronald Reagan dismissed him following the revelation of that policy in November 1986.

After that, as I recall, he mostly slipped from the public's thoughts until his former secretary, Fawn Hall, testified about how she had helped shred documents for her boss and smuggled others from the office.

Then people began clamoring for North to testify — as if most had just heard his name for the first time. And, I guess, there were those who had. I suppose there were some people — very sheltered people — who had no idea who Oliver North was before this day in 1987.

In fact, I know there were. I was one of them. Well, not entirely. I mean, I had heard the name in connection with reports about his involvement in the scandal and his intention to testify. Otherwise, I didn't know much about him.

But after this day 25 years ago, his name was a household word.

In 1987, I was working nights on the Arkansas Gazette's sports desk so I watched North's testimony every day — until about the middle of the afternoon on days when I had to go to work, all day on days when I didn't.

(On those days when I worked, I would often set my VCR to record in my absence. Then, when I returned home after midnight, I would stay up and watch the rest of his testimony from that day.)

Rudy Abramson of the Los Angeles Times wrote that North was "the most eagerly awaited witness since Watergate's John W. Dean III" 14 years earlier.

There is truth in that, but it wasn't quite the same.

When Dean testified in the summer of 1973, I remember hearing his testimony on radios and TV sets wherever I went. My parents watched Dean's testimony on the family TV set, and they had the car radio set to the testimony so it was possible for me to go from the house to the car and never miss a thing.

Then, almost anywhere I might go — the grocery store, the barber shop, whatever it might be — I could see/hear the testimony on small portable TVs or on radios.

(My family lived in the country, a few miles outside the city limits. I remember one day when my father needed to get something from a hardware store in town, and I went along with him. I could hear the testimony on the TV as we left the house, then Dad switched on the radio when we got in the car and we listened to it all the way into town. Then, we may have missed a minute or two of testimony when we walked from the parking lot into the hardware store, but when we did, we found that the proprietor was watching the telecast on his portable TV.

(As long as we were in town, Dad wanted to run a few errands at nearby stores so we walked from the hardware store to the other businesses. All along the way, I could hear the testimony — on radios in cars and stores, on portable TVs. Hardly missed a beat.)

Before his testimony, Dean's was not a familiar face to most Americans. But even though I was much younger at the time of Watergate, I knew more about Dean when he started his testimony than I knew about North.

Looking at it from another angle, both of those key witnesses — North and Dean — received generally high points for credibility from congressional investigators and viewers.

Dean challenged Richard Nixon's version of events, and Nixon's own tapes demonstrated how reliable Dean's memory and word were. Ultimately, Nixon resigned.

North, on the other hand, did not implicate Reagan in any wrongdoing. He did not challenge Reagan's decision to dismiss him when the plot came to light; if Reagan was involved more directly, North did not accuse him.

It seemed to me at the time that a lot of people hoped he would — or, at least, that he would get caught in a contradiction that would give ammunition to the administration's critics.

Kind of like the people who go to car races hoping to see a pileup.

The revelation of the Iran–Contra scandal in November 1986 marked the end of a really astonishing spike in presidential popularity. For nearly two years, Reagan had enjoyed the approval of more than half of survey respondents — often far more than half.

His approval dropped below 50% when Iran–Contra was made public, though, and it only rose above 51% once in the next 19 months — when Hall testified.

Reagan didn't resign. No evidence was ever uncovered that he authorized diversion of arms profits to the Contras, and Reagan remained president through the conclusion of his second term in 1989.

Gallup has been measuring presidential job approval since the dawn of Franklin Roosevelt's second term in 1937, and, of the presidents who have been re–elected in the last 75 years, only Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton enjoyed comparable periods of popularity.

A year before North's testimony, in July 1986, Reagan's job approval stood at 63%, according to Gallup. His popularity dipped below 50% when the scandal became public knowledge, and, by the time North began giving his testimony 25 years ago today, Reagan was clinging to a 49–43 plurality in the Gallup poll.

But Reagan bounced back. By the end of 1988, he was back at 63% approval.

In the years ahead, in fact, the implementation of the arms–for–hostages plan seemed to get a certain amount of vindication.

The now 68–year–old North ran for the U.S. Senate from Virginia nearly 20 years ago and narrowly lost to Lyndon Johnson's son–in–law. He has written several books and is a popular commentator for Fox News.

Enforcement of the Boland Amendment, which had been passed in the early 1980s, seemed to restrict future U.S. aid to the Contras. Congress later repealed the Boland Amendment, however, and funding for the Contras resumed.

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