This is the first time I've ever had to scrap a column already written; Ollie made me do it.

Let's face it, the nation's agenda for the past week was reordered by Lt. Col. North's Masterpiece Theater. His followers should have no complaints about news coverage. But they do. When familiar bylines disappeared in Thursday's and Friday's editions, the simple explanation -- that it was the result of the Newspaper Guild's asking reporters to withhold their signatures from news reports to spotlight lagging contract negotiations -- was not enough for callers. They knew better: it was because the stories in The Post were so anti-North the reporters were ashamed to have their names appear over them.

This is the type of spot news story that creates special challenges for the print media. In a running story like this, TV skims off the cream, then hauls away the milk and the remaining solid particles. The print media can either run a prosaic account of what has already been available firsthand to tens of millions, in real time, or give the readers a sense of excitement and color, accompanied by skillfully selected highlights, interpretation and depth analysis, all of which is what The Post does best -- and perhaps overdoes.

The citizen support troops of Col. North don't think The Post did such a hot job. For example, they demanded to know why, as a public service, The Post didn't carry a box on the front page with an address where cash contributions could be sent for the defense fund.

Truly great performances, whether in Congress, on the stage or screen, are conceived internally, require a gestation period, and must emerge in full flower with sincerity and integrity. Ollie North had it all. It was a stunning performance. The only false note, which he may regret, was the uniform, a prop from wardrobe that he should have resisted. This colorful display will ultimately work against him. It was in sharp contrast to a subtle image that may well loom large in peoples' consciousness as time goes by: the picture of Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye of Hawaii raising the wrong hand to swear in the witness. And you suddenly realized this mild-mannered civilian lost the right arm on a battlefield.

As Col. North continues to neutralize his opponents hour after hour, day after day, I keep seeing on the tube a Marine lieutenant colonel in the offices of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs a decade ago -- same age, same rank, same medals, a Vietnam hero, a lean, mean, fighting machine who could cut through red tape and bureaucratic blockades with breathtaking audacity. It was a battle royal to pull him out of the ranks for special assignment. Those were the days when the Marine Corps didn't take kindly to having its combat officers sequestered for active duty in corridors of Washington.

The Marine commandant, in an attempt to head off the transfer, proclaimed that it was "unconscionable" for a presidential appointee to draft a Marine combat officer to "a political job." The Marine was told that, if he took the assignment, he'd never make his star. The colonel was not an academy man but a self-styled "Marine animal" who lied about his age and enlisted when he was 15. The Marines were suspicious of his youth, but when they finished the investigation he was 25 and a company commander.

The colonel never made his star, but he did make it big in private industry. A brutal fact of life is that the Ollie Norths serve a vital function. Indispensable in battle, they are also the glue that holds the military together in times of peace. But it is important that they be kept under tight rein. Lt. Col. North has been telling the committee he was. This has yet to be proven.

Ollie North -- director, producer, scriptwriter, star performer -- has made the hearings his own show. Everybody else has been a bit player. The interrogators with their cool legal minds have been playing to the appellate court; he has been playing to the gallery, where the hearts and votes are.

There are only two men I have known, one in Washington, the other in Hollywood, who could still take on Ollie North and cut him down to lieutenant colonel size. One is Spencer Tracy; the other Everett Dirksen. Those two men were scissored from the same bolt of cloth. They knew how to touch the heartstrings in vocal combat. How unfortunate for the American people -- and, I daresay, for Col. North too -- that neither one is available.