Dan Rather ran into one of the maids at his Washington hotel the other day. She recognized him at once. After the predictable pleasantries, the maid had a question: "Well, is this boy lying, or not?" Rather took that to indicate that the story of Oliver North is seeping fast into the American consciousness.
On Day Three of this national Olliefication program, North was joined for the first time in the Senate Caucus Room by his wife Betsy, who wore a prim blue frock. There they were, Mr. and Mrs. North, a more than all-American couple, staring down the armies of the day, the joint House-Senate committee investigating the Iran-contra scandal.
Eye to eye, nobody blinked, but North seemed once again to walk away with the laurels, even after facing the latest and supposedly most formidable challenger, Senate counsel Arthur Liman. Liman was tough, Liman was persistent, but Liman really didn't leave much of a scratch on The Little Colonel.
The Little Colonel that could. And did.
"I really thought the colonel got the best end of the exchange," committee member Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.) told Judy Woodruff on PBS after the day's session ended. Cheney said he and other members were "surprised" that Liman wasn't more successful at piercing Ollie's armor. Apparently you need silver bullets for that.
So who will they send in next? Maybe Jack Palance in his sinister gunslinger's garb from "Shane"? But then North would probably just turn into Alan Ladd and score another direct hit. America loves a good David and Goliath story, and this one is a pip. Nobody has to wonder who's playing David, either.
North began the day with the "opening statement" that Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the Senate committee chairman, had refused to let him read on opening day; seems Ollie hadn't followed proper procedure. The statement was disappointing, although remarks like "my best friend is my wife, Betsy" hada nice down-home folksy, if vaguely Nixonian, ring.
Nixon said, in 1977, "I gave them a sword." North keeps saying, in essence, over and over at the hearings, "They gave me a shredder."
Later, questioned gently by counsel George Van Cleve, North emoted rote conservative dogma like, "We didn't lose the war in Vietnam. We lost the war right here in this city." And so forth. The session was saved by the outburst of two demonstrators who had to be led out of the hearing room after shouting and hoisting a banner. "Keep in mind that they were due for a break anyway," Dan Rather cheerfully told viewers of CBS News.
In the afternoon, looking slightly intimidated by Liman, North was goaded into more pious statements of conscience that somehow manage to ring true, and nostalgic as all get-out. It sounded again as if Jack Webb had come back to life and was writing North's dialogue.
Liman wanted to know why North hadn't objected when his superior at the National Security Council, Vice Adm. John Poindexter, allegedly failed to inform the president of the covert arms-to-Nicaragua operation that was then unraveling.
"First of all," said North, "I'm not in the habit of questioning my superiors. He deemed it not to be necessary to ask the president. I saluted smartly and charged up the hill. That's what lieutenant colonels are supposed to do. I have no problem with that."
Dander rising, North insisted he still thought using Iran money to buy arms for contras was a good idea. Liman said if it was such a good idea, why did Reagan fire him once it was made public?
"Let me just make one thing very clear, counsel," said North. "This lieutenant colonel is not going to challenge a decision of the commander in chief for whom I still work. And I am proud to work for that commander in chief, and if the commander in chief tells this lieutenant colonel to go stand in the corner and sit on his head, I will do so."
Did he really say that? Yes he did.
North delivers these gollywhompers with a radiant sort of righteousness that's infectious, if slightly creepy. You want to believe, like you want to believe Superman can fly and that Tinkerbell won't croak from drinking the poison meant for Peter Pan.
The statements were made during a discussion of the Fall Guy Plan, with North having been made, apparently quite willingly, the Fall Guy for the Iran-contra fiasco, even though the thrust of much of his testimony has been that he does not intend to fall alone. This tree in the forest is going to take other trees with him. But not The Big Tree, or so he thinks.
Beholding this performance in all its holy fervor, studying that fastidious innocent glow on North's face, and hearing him say how readily he agreed to be prince of patsies, one could sense a quality that has helped make North such an irresistible television character this week. We love watching him partly because, let's face it, he loves being there.
He loves talking about how hard all this has been on himself and his family, he loves getting indignant over real or imagined slurs from the committee, he loves brandishing the lingo of espionage and secrecy ("plausible deniability," "action packages," that sort of thing). Maybe all soldiers are really kids playing soldier. Including this one.
"I'm not embarrassed to be here, counsel," North said at one point. No indeed.
CNN went to North's home town of Philmont, N.Y., on Wednesday to record the reactions of the citizenry there. It's one of those towns where, one feels, milkmen still deliver door-to-door and the Saturday Evening Post publishes weekly. And a young man identified as a friend of North's described him this way: "He's the Beaver."
He meant the kiddy hero of the Stone Age sitcom "Leave It to Beaver," a guileless tot who did what he was told, a pint-sized trooper who navigated muck and mire with pluck and grit. The Beaver, right.
As if all this wholesome Americana wasn't enough, the hearings have plenty of friction and conflict, too, mostly when the lawyers joust. North's attorney, Brendan Sullivan, was back to full feistiness yesterday, chiding Liman with such rejoinders as, "That's none of your business," "Get off his back," and "Get on with the questioning."
This took a good-humored turn later, however, when, after assailing Liman's course of inquiry as "dreamland" and hearing Inouye say that North could make some of his own objections, Sullivan shouted, "I'm not a potted plant! I'm here as the lawyer! That's my job."
Moments like this, scattered through all three days of testimony so far, have kept the North appearance bona fide, certified, total-immersion television. It's almost impossible to tear oneself away.
At NBC, traditionally the lowest-rated network in the daytime, the hearings have been drawing up to 13 percent more viewers than usual fare, according to early "overnight" ratings. CNN's ratings are reportedly up 200 percent over April levels. Timothy Russert, NBC News executive vice president, said yesterday the North stuff has been so good that the network is now almost certain to televise, live, the Poindexter appearance before the committee next week.
"The first 15 minutes of Oliver North confirmed our instincts," Russert said. "This is clearly a great national story -- beyond that, an international story. RAI TV in Italy is carrying it live. It's a made-for-television event."
David Burke, ABC News executive vice president, said his network plans to carry Poindexter live, too, and so, according to CBS News President Howard Stringer, does CBS.
Some of CBS' competitors have chided the network for sending Rather to Washington and giving him a $100,000 anchor booth in the Amtrak Building on North Capitol Street from which to broadcast.
"We're in the right place at the right time," Stringer said yesterday. "When a story is this hot, you've got to be near the heat. Our being here gives us better access to the participants, and Dan's presence galvanizes the energies of the entire operation."
Russert, asked if NBC plans to send anchor Tom Brokaw down to Washington as the hearings continue, said, "We don't see any need to. Our coverage has not suffered in any way by being not physically in Washington." In the age of satellites, said Russert, "whether you're 900 yards away or 300 miles away doesn't make much difference as long as you have the technology."
ABC's Burke, asked if anchor Peter Jennings would be hitting the road to Washington, said, "No, I don't believe we see any need for that."
CBS has seemed the most engaged and involved with the story, although PBS' coverage may be the most comprehensive. Brokaw once referred to the hearings as the "Watergate" hearings yesterday, quickly correcting himself, and Rather called the colonel "Oliver Nark." But by and large the coverage has been sure and sweet, just like North's testimony.
North's lawyer wants that testimony to end today, but it's likely the committee will want at least one more crack at North, on Monday. Goliath keeps getting up off the ground and coming back for more. North seems to be saying, "Come on, big fella, show me what you've got!" So far, it hasn't been enough.