BOSTON -- For pure entertainment, you couldn't beat the guy. His daytime ratings outdid the soaps. He was producer, director and star all in one. He even titled his own show: ''The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.'' And if you ever wondered who was going to play him in the movie, he left only one conceivable choice: Oliver North.
This Marine more than lived up to his billing. In full military regalia, he was a one-man repertory company. He alternately played patriot, patriarch, charismatic leader, dutiful follower and forgetful dad, the ''old buffoon.''
Here was a man for all seasons. A guy who would go one on one with terrorist Abu Nidal and still buy leotards for the kids. A man who hated communism and never ''hanky-panked" with his secretary despite her ''God-given beauty.''
Oliver North's squared-off shoulders and take-charge glare began by mesmerizing the committee members and the country. North presented not just a masterful self-defense but, more important, a fascinating dramatic profile.
Americans more comfortable judging performance than substance, conditioned by television debates to watch for quivers and the sweaty upper lips, had to give him three stars. The most frequently heard question about North was not: ''What did he do?'' It was, rather: ''How did he do?'' And the answer, in the best Variety tradition, was: ''Boffo.'' We were the audience; he was the virtuoso performer. That's entertainment.
The most fascinating part of the show was the way it reversed the ''character'' issue. All this political season, we have been asked whether a man's private conduct can affect his public purposes. Can he be disqualified because of it? The answer has been a qualified ''yes.'' A flawed character may make a risky policy maker.
In the case of the lieutenant colonel, we seem to be taking the opposite view. North defended his character -- or saved his honor, if you prefer. He didn't, he says, take a penny. He never committed adultery. He was proud of his work. His ability to present himself as a man who erred only out of concern for his family or ardor for his country was allowed to whitewash his actions. The risk is that, in this case, private morality may cover or color a far deeper public immorality.
Consider two excerpts from North's endless and elegant monologues. First, his passionate description of the death of 11-year-old Natasha Simpson at the hands of terrorists in Rome: ''Gentlemen, I have an 11-year-old daughter not, perhaps, a whole lot different than Natasha Simpson.''
Next there was his emotional defense of the contras: ''The Nicaraguan freedom fighters are people -- living, breathing, young men and women who have had to suffer a desperate struggle for liberty.''
A splendid show of emotion, a fine example of the Marine's character, stiff but with just the right amount of feeling. It was hard, sitting in the audience, judging this polished performance, to remember that this man thought it a ''neat idea'' to sell arms to Iran and crank up the war in Nicaragua against the knowledge and will of the American people.
More than a few 11-year-olds, ''not perhaps a whole lot different than Natasha Simpson'' or the North girl, have surely been killed by our weapons in the Mideast. More than a thousand civilians, ''living, breathing young men and women'' -- including 210 under 12 -- have been killed by the war we created in Nicaragua. North helped make these things happen. So did his lies to Congress. Yet it took a demonstrator at the hearings just to introduce these faceless victims of war into the hearing room.
These hearings are not just about the Boland Amendment or even the Constitution. These hearings are not just about whether Ollie North is a great character actor, a swell husband, a loving dad and all-around honorable fellow by his own code. They're about illegally trading those arms, weapons of murder. What counts in this drama is the public morality. The plot. The good, the bad and the very, very ugly.