We've had America's football team, America's band, America's TV news, even America's porn star.
Now we've got America's face. It belongs to Lt. Col. Oliver North, who has had it on display for two days at the Iran-contra hearings.
It is fierce, furrowed, boyish, angry, lachrymose, goofy, sly, handsome, smug, indignant, dissembling, wounded, gap-toothed, peeved, resolute, naive, contemptuous, resentful, bright, wary, cocky and five-o'clock-shadowed.
It's the only good face the hearings have had. Until now, the witnesses have looked like the assembly line at Mrs. Smith's pie factory -- Hakim, Secord -- or they've been the usual roundup of shambling specters, such as Robert Owen.
But now, with Ollie, we've got a man who can shift in midsentence from the giggly half-grin of the kid who has just noticed that the high school principal's fly is open to the high-minded rage of a man getting a traffic ticket while driving a hurt child to the hospital. His face is astonished and angry at the same time, a particularly military combination that allows him to exhibit righteous fury and a kind of fierce innocence within a millisecond of each other. He looks as if he is about to cry. He looks as if he is about to kill you.
He is Everyman and the Lone Cowboy. He is Joe Sixpack and the Last Angry Man, Mr. Front Porch USA and Captain Ahab, just another working stiff and General Custer wearing the small smile of the doomed.
These are very American combinations, this being a country that values both childishness and ferocity, innocence and dogma, and tries to find them in the same people. Sometimes we divide them among our character actors, but Ollie puts them together -- he's Richard Widmark with an ominous little smile and an exasperated Dean Jones in "That Darn Cat."
In the American tradition, it's an open, eager face. His chin is square and Marine, the kind of chin that you get accused of leading with. The gap between his front teeth gives him the coarse naivete' of a Huck Finn. The uptilt of his nose is almost elfin, and it shows his nostrils -- this gives him a conspicuous vigor. His eyes are deep and tilted, conferring a thoughtful air, and his lashes are extravagantly long, a hint of sensuality there. His shallow forehead makes them seem to be set high in his face, almost as high as a caricaturist would place them.
You get the feeling that like a lot of military men, North has worked hard to give his face military bearing. The set of his fullish mouth is always a compromise between threat and obedience -- he might well like it to have a snapping-turtle certainty, but it's never the same twice. He'll tighten his mouth to the edge of having his lips go white, then he'll let it hang open, the mouth of a wise guy. Sometimes it hangs when he doesn't quite carry the moment with one of his hard-bitten bits. He describes someone: "This man never produced anything. Talked a lot. Did nothing." Clint Eastwood could have said this line, but North can't, and he doesn't know what to do with his mouth afterward.
And there's a whole battery of smiles -- that huge angry smile when he advised a television reporter last winter to read the Gospel According to St. Matthew; the official American good-guy smile he's been using on the press in the hearing room; the lopsided grin when he seems genuinely to believe that the questioning is silly; and that little smile that flickers behind so much of his testimony like a tongue testing a sore tooth.
His forehead is lined, but it seems to be deliberately so -- the lines aren't the dry crazing of age or sun, but a fleshy furrowing of his forehead by eyebrows that lift it like hydraulic jacks. The eyebrows are asymmetrical -- the left one threatens to ride right up over the right one in a look that combines curiosity with the thoughtless focus of a man aiming a pistol. Like Ronald Reagan, he has the low hairline of an adolescent, and the hair is short. Not enlisted short but officer short, which is still short enough that it has to be forced by years of brushing to assume any part or wave -- Marines can work very hard to torture fuzz into some kind of fashion.
It's a face that asks: "You talking to me?" It has the paramount American virtue of cuteness, an aspect that is always generated by combinations of opposites, such as little girls in their mothers' high heels, or Lt. Col. Oliver North coming on like Mickey Rooney. It seems to squint at distance in the best military fashion. It reveals its whole history, like the geological cross section of a hill sliced open by a highway: We see a layer of blank-grinned celebrity over a stripe of lieutenant colonel with a cultivated impatience in his eyes, and beneath that a stratum of altar boy flexing his jaw with the effort of carrying the crucifix perfectly.
It is a well-trained face that muscles his irritability down to an acceptable level -- but always leaves a little showing. This gives him a sarcastic and self-conscious look, particularly when he uses words like "dandy" or "neat" or "right good." It is sardonic, too. Asked what authority he had for sending arms sale money to the contras, he says, "Well, I don't know that I actually had any," and stretches his face into a cold grin. It's a face that takes a nearly giddy delight in mind games, and in these moments it would go well on Tom Sawyer saying to his friends how much he likes whitewashing that fence.
It's easy to think that this is the face that a lot of the world sees when it looks at Americans -- the brutality and the boyishness, the energy and the mania, the optimism paired with the self-righteousness. Where he seems honest, he is beguiling, and if he seems a fraud, he is only claiming that he is entitled to singularly American virtues. America's face: What a show!