By Ruth Conniff
Yes, the Cold War is over. I know because I attended Oliver North's victory celebration at the Capitol Hill Hyatt in Washington, D.C. The July 8, $150-a-plate dinner marked the American triumph over the Evil Empire in the worldwide battle for democracy and freedom.
"We won," North declared. "Reagan saved the world from communism." The party was held on the 10th anniversary of North's testimony before Congress in the Iran-contra hearings. And North estimated that fully 10 percent of Congress was there to revel in the moment with him. "I don't think I've seen so many members of Congress since I was subpoenaed," he said, peering out at the audience.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, made the opening remarks, claiming credit on behalf of Republicans for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the contra victory in the Nicaraguan elections. "How many more generations were you willing to consign to totalitarianism?" he demanded of the "liberals in Washington." He denounced the Clinton administration, which "never had the guts to put on a uniform, never had the guts to go fight for this country, and doesn't have the guts to do what's right today." Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., led us in the Pledge of Allegiance, after first praising Ollie North as "a genuine American hero." Little Orphan Annie sang the national anthem. Stanton Evans, the master of ceremonies, introduced Annie (aka Randall Brooks, of Broadway musical fame) by explaining that Ted Turner and Jane Fonda have announced a campaign to get rid of "our American heritage" by doing away with the national anthem and replacing it with "America the Beautiful."
"Well, this is our answer to Ted Turner and Jane Fonda," Evans announced. As Little Orphan Annie warbled "O say, can you see," an enormous American flag rose slowly behind the head table.
The audience of about 500 people rose for the invocation by the Rev. Linda Poindexter (wife of Iran-contra conspirator Admiral John Poindexter).
"The Lord be with you," she said. "And also with you," the audience responded. Then she thanked God for guiding our American leaders, "especially President Reagan."
Apparently we'd all been caught in a time warp. President Reagan? "After all, he's the one we're really honoring this evening," North said (graciously ignoring Reagan's refusal to endorse him in his failed Senate run, not to mention Nancy Reagan's explicit denunciation of him in the crucial final days of his campaign).
Reagan's ghost cast a long, broad-shouldered shadow over the North event--just as it did during the 1996 Republican convention, which at times seemed more like a requiem for Ronnie than a promotion of current Republican politics.
Besides being so obviously backward-looking, this Reagan nostalgia seems odd because of the total whiteout of George Bush, who was as invisible at the North event as he was at the San Diego convention. The Republicans seem to prefer to act as though there never were a 42nd president. (Bush, ironically, played the role of eraser in the Iran-contra affair, pardoning Caspar Weingberger before trial, along with five other alleged Iran-contra conspirators, and thus, according to independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, completing the Iran-contra coverup.)
And just why are conservatives eulogizing Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War anyway, eight years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and somewhat ahead of Reagan's actual demise?
"There's a sense among conservatives that we really haven't celebrated this one cause that brought so many factions together, which was the Cold War and ultimate victory in it," says Keith Appell of Creative Response Concepts, the public-relations firm in Alexandria, Va., that helped put on the Oliver North event. "We think Ronald Reagan was the guy who set the tone for the end of the Cold War. Victory in Nicaragua was really the end of communism, and celebrating that needed to be done." Not to mention the fundraising potential. "It never hurts to raise a few bucks," Appell acknowledges.
Since his sudden rise to fame during the Iran-contra hearings, Oliver North has become a right-wing cash machine. Financial statements he filed when he ran for the Senate in 1992 showed that he had raised more than $20 million since the Iran-contra hearings, mainly through a massive direct-mail operation. His non-profit organization, the Freedom Alliance, which he built up from his legal-defense-fund mailing lists, collected $150,000 from the "Celebration of Freedom Tenth Anniversary Gala" alone. A recent issue of The Free American, the Freedom Alliance newsletter, has an article on the group's new headquarters two miles from the Dulles airport in Virginia. The building "also houses Oliver North's bulletproof-vest company," the article points out. During North's Senate race, the non-profit group got in trouble for leasing office space to North's private businesses, without collecting some $88,000 in rent.
The Freedom Alliance appears to exist mainly for the purpose of promoting North. The group distributes op-eds in which North rails against feminists, gays, and President Clinton's "flower-child foreign policy." It hosts conferences for young conservatives, and it supports special causes like the Michael New legal-defense fund. (New was the U.S. soldier discharged from the Army in 1996 for refusing to wear a U.N. insignia and serve under U.N. command in Macedonia.) Besides generating lots of money, the idea of promoting Ollie North and reliving the conservatives' glory days fits into a broader public-relations strategy. Keith Appell calls it "doing Reagan."
Appell's PR firm has been growing rapidly in the last few years. Business is booming for such clients as the Christian Coalition, Newt Gingrich, and Regnery Publishing. In addition to promoting the conservative triumph over communism, the firm has drawn directly on the Cold War mentality in other ways.
After The New Yorker published an article by Jane Mayer criticizing Regnery and author Gary Aldrich for failing to distinguish between fact and libelous gossip about Clinton's sex life, Creative Response Concepts put out a barrage of press releases that smacked of red-baiting, tarring Mayer as a left-winger and a radical feminist.
"Doing Reagan" isn't just a matter of tapping into any old, anti-communist vein, however. It's a whole marketing concept.
"You've seen a number of events on Capitol Hill in the last couple of weeks, where we're bringing in working families and showing how tax cuts benefit them, setting up the bully pulpit, doing a lot of talk radio, doing events with family farmers, handing out mock $500 checks," says Appell enthusiastically. He pulls out clips from the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Los Angeles Times to bolster his point.
"Congressman Don Manzullo [R-Ill.] met with some family farmers and here's a picture of him standing with them on a flatbed truck!" Appell cracks himself up, giggling with delight at this PR coup. "It's great! It's working!"
"This is the Reagan approach--a classic example is Reagan going to the Berlin Wall toward the end of the Cold War. ... He could have given a speech anywhere, but he gave it in front of the wall. That picture captured the very essence of the Evil Empire."
So "doing Reagan" means ... ?
"What we have done is to get more pictures," says Appell.
That, in a nutshell, is the Reagan strategy. And Oliver North is nothing if not picturesque.
Of course, there are still those teensy problems with violating international law and subverting the U.S. Constitution.
North was convicted in 1989 of three federal crimes: aiding in the obstruction of Congress, accepting illegal gratuities, and destroying documents related to arms sales to Iran to finance the illegal contra war. He was fined $150,000 and sentenced to 1,200 hours of community service.
But a year later, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that, because North testified under immunity before Congress in 1987, the conviction would have to be reviewed to make sure none of the witnesses were influenced by North's immunized testimony. After key witnesses said that they had, in fact, been influenced by testimony North gave before Congress, independent counsel Lawrence Walsh dropped all charges.
At the celebration dinner, Jesse Helms assured us that everything North did in the Iran-contra affair was "absolutely legal and authorized by law and by the president of the United States."
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., who is heading the House of Representatives' investigation of the Clinton administration's campaign-finance scandals, was nonchalant about the Iran-contra affair. He hinted that the Boland Amendment, which cut off aid to the contras in 1984, was made to be broken: "The Boland Amendment, which was passed by the liberals in Congress, was just another obstacle and obstruction to the fight against the communists," Burton explained. "Ollie North found innovative ways to help, and I congratulate him for that." Burton and other speakers at the gala made it clear that subverting Congress and running a covert war were minor issues, compared with the larger battle against international socialism.
"Ronald Reagan gave hope to America," Burton said, to a round of applause. "I remember when Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Berlin Wall and said, 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.' "
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., spoke with admiration of working with North in the Reagan administration. "He was just a guy who worked upstairs from me at the White House. We always knew he was running all over the world doing all kinds of crazy things," Rohrabacher chuckled. "We didn't know what he was doing! I remember at one point going to talk to Ollie [during the contra war] and saying, 'What can I do to help?' He told me some things I could do--none of them were anywhere near the line of legality--but he said, 'You don't have to do that, we have some people who will take care of these things.'"
Rohrabacher, now known as the "surfing congressman," has a Web page featuring pictures of him surfing, as well as his thoughts on surf culture and the relative merits of different types of boards. During college, master of ceremonies Stanton Evans told us, Rohrabacher helped found an organization called the Committee for the Prevention of Nuclear Peace. Its motto was, "We already have enough bombs to blow up the world 10 times over, so a few more can't hurt."
One of the men seated near me, whose wife works for Oliver North, pounded on the table in a fit of hilarity over this quip, and passed the wine bottle. Rohrabacher closed by saying, "Ollie is a great example to youth."
Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, a favorite of militia groups in her home state, spoke after Rohrabacher. Evans introduced her as "a modern Joan of Arc on behalf of U.S. property rights." Chenoweth is fighting "the collectivization of land by the government" out in Idaho, just as many heroic women fought against Bolshevism in the former Soviet Union, Evans said.
Dressed in a pink suit and sparkling earrings, Chenoweth spoke breathlessly about the first time she saw Oliver North on TV during the Iran-contra hearings: "I saw this young colonel who promised to tell the truth. And I thought, 'My goodness, this is going to be unusual.' And for the next days and weeks I was riveted to the television set ... What was it that riveted all of America? ... True leadership and true love of country and a dedication to duty we've seldom seen. ... The more I've gotten to know Ollie North, the more I saw what it was that gave him that riveting quality of leadership-- and that's his close and abiding relationship with God, the creator of the heavens and Earth."
The woman at my table who works for North nodded solemnly.
Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., testified that Oliver North would be an asset in the war on drugs. He noted the Peruvian government's policy of shooting down airplanes carrying drugs, and said, "This is the sort of approach Ollie North would take. It's gotten the drug traffickers' attention."
Actually, North took a much more complicated approach to drug traffickers in Latin America. "You will recall that over the years Manuel Noriega and I have developed a fairly good relationship," North wrote in an e-mail message to his boss, Adm. John Poindexter, at the National Security Commission on Aug. 23, 1986. In the wake of news stories about Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega's involvement in the drug trade, Noriega had appealed to North: "In exchange for a promise from us to 'help clean up his [Noriega's] image' ... he would undertake to 'take care of' the Sandinista leadership for us," North wrote to Poindexter.
In a 1985 notebook entry, North recorded a weapons purchase by the contras, with U.S. assistance, from a supplier in Honduras: "14 M to finance [the arms] came from drugs."
Another set of memoranda and purchase orders tracks more than $300,000 paid by the Nicaraguan Humanitarian Aid Office, overseen by North, to a major U.S. marijuana trafficker to ferry supplies to the contras in his airplane. The plane had also been used to run drugs.
Other documents show North intervening on behalf of known drug smugglers, including José Bueso Rosa, a Honduran general and CIA liaison who was arrested for conspiring to import $40 million worth of cocaine into the United States to finance the assassination of the president of Honduras. Bueso assumed his American friends would keep him out of prison. "Our major concern--Gorman, North, Clarridge--is that when Bueso finds out about what is really happening to him, he will break his long-standing silence about the Nic Resistance and other sensitive operations," North wrote in an e-mail message to Poindexter. North recommended that he and his colleagues "cabal quietly in the morning to look at options: pardon, clemency, deportation, reduced sentence."
All of these declassified documents come from the National Security Archive, a public-interest research library in Washington, D.C., which obtained them using the Freedom of Information Act after a long legal battle with the Reagan and Bush administrations.
The drug evidence, while damning, is not much worse than North's direct testimony before the Iran-contra committee, in which he admitted that he lied to Congress, created false documents to throw investigators off his trail, and conducted secret deals with terrorists and arms merchants.
But since he got off on the technicality related to his immunity, North now presents himself as entirely innocent of the very crimes he confessed to committing.
His supporters are sanctimonious about North's guiltlessness and the relative depravity of the Clinton administration.
"Can you imagine an administration of which Ollie North was a part bringing illegal aliens into the country to vote? Committing mail and wire fraud? Racketeering? Obstruction of justice?" Georgia Rep. Bob Barr asked, without any apparent irony. "Ollie, we need you now."
Is Oliver North running for office? Before North's speech, the lights dimmed, and what looked suspiciously like a campaign film began to roll: "Ollie North: Always the Courage to Stand Up for Freedom."
Pat Buchanan was a supporting actor in the film, recounting North's performance in the Iran-contra hearings. "You could feel the air go out of the liberals in this town when they realized they weren't going to break anybody," Buchanan said.
The film featured clips from the Iran-contra hearings. The audience booed as the congressional questioners, who looked like plodding bureaucrats, bullied our hero, the brave, straight-shooting Marine. Then came a montage of politicians praising North for his courage at the hearings' close. In the end, North was vindicated.
But then, alas, "his quest for the Senate was not to be," the voice-over said. Still, "his quest continues." There were shots of North doing his nationally syndicated radio show. "No one, not even Oliver North, knows what the future holds. But one thing is certain. In the quest for freedom, Oliver North will be there."
"You have to figure out relatively soon in life what's worth dying for," North said, looking pensive at the end of the film. "You also have to figure out what's worth living for. I've figured out this country is worth living and dying for."
Cut to footage of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
The film was made specifically for the banquet, not for any political campaign, according to North's staff at the Freedom Alliance. North does not have any immediate plans to seek office. Although "a lot of people are curious, especially with the news articles regarding Governor [George] Allen stepping down," says the Alliance's Dee Dee Lancaster.
But with the Virginia governor's race now in full swing, and the Senate race still three years away, it doesn't look as if North will be running again any time soon. Meanwhile, he serves his purpose as an icon.
North got a standing ovation when he stepped up to the microphone at the banquet. The ordeal he went through during the Iran-contra hearings, he said, "was about this very document I carry with me until it's tattered and torn--the Constitution." He pulled it out of his pocket and waved it at us.
Then he told a long story about the hearings. It was a great telling, full of humor and pathos. He described how nervous he was. He talked about how he prayed, as he waited, surrounded by security guards in a little locked room outside the Senate: "God, if an earthquake ever hits Washington, let it be now."
A little old lady slipped up to him as he was entering the hearing room on the first day--somehow getting past security--and handed him a card, which his attorney, Brendan Sullivan, grabbed from him. Sullivan kept the card throughout the hearings, setting it on the microphone stand during North's testimony and putting it back in his pocket at the end of the day. A curious reporter finally demanded to know what was on the card. Sullivan slowly took it out of his pocket, looked at it, then put it away again, before replying: "The answers."
What's really on the card, North told us, is Isaiah 40:31. He carries that with him until it's tattered and torn, too. The verse reads: "But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."
Two honored guests at the banquet were Adolfo Calero, president of the Conservative Party of Nicaragua, and David Jacobsen, a former hostage held in Lebanon by the radical Shiite Islamic group Hezbollah. North accompanied Jacobsen home, after taking credit for his release.
Calero and Jacobsen both thanked North. Jacobsen told the moving story of his release and trip home in November 1986 with the mysterious William P. Good (North's code name), who gave him a verse of the 23rd Psalm inscribed on a baseball cap.
The white-haired Calero also gushed. "I'm so proud to have been part of that task force that saved civilization," the former contra leader said. He got a standing ovation. "But there are still great problems in Nicaragua," he pointed out, including more than 50 percent unemployment. He made a special plea for Nicaraguan immigrants in the United States--"40,000 who have been living here and who have no future in Nicaragua and are facing deportation with this new immigration law." The irony of Calero asking the assembled conservatives to loosen the immigration law was lost in the hoopla.
After sponsoring a covert war that ultimately killed 30,000 people in Nicaragua, and waging a long destabilization campaign against the Sandinista government, Oliver North and his colleagues from the Reagan administration are taking credit for Nicaraguan democracy.
But the elections in Nicaragua--held in 1992 by the Sandinista government, and in which the Sandinistas peacefully stepped down--did not represent the victory the contra supporters in the United States were looking for. They were aiming for the military overthrow of the government.
And, of course, they were subverting democracy at home to try to achieve it. Now the Republicans are casting themselves as the triumphant good guys in the global battle between good and evil. And they are trying to revive the whole musty, Cold War narrative to energize their movement. Who knows? Maybe it's good for one more round.
"Oliver North as the standard-bearer of the right gives you a sense of the shallowness and ethical dearth of the conservative movement in this country," says Peter Kornbluh, who, as a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, is an Iran-contra expert. Kornbluh has watched with a jaundiced eye as Oliver North takes his place next to G. Gordon Liddy and Bob Dornan in the rogues' gallery of conservative talk-radio. "All that's left for them is to rabble-rouse on the radio, and, in North's case, to raise lots of money through direct mail from ignorant souls wholly unschooled in the great treachery to the Constitution that North committed," he says. "If that's their symbol, so be it."
Web exclusive to the Sept. 25-Oct. 1, 1997 issue of Sonoma County Independent.
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