BEAVER ISLAND, MICHIGAN -- Ollie North was not Topic A here on this blessed isle, but he finished a respectable third. The unusually warm, muggy weather and the absence of the normal frostbite symptoms among those who swam in the extension of the Arctic Sea called the top of Lake Michigan were more discussed at Pat and Josh's wedding dance held the Friday night North finished his first week of testimony.
But the colonel did penetrate the cocoon of indifference in which the relaxed folks here usually wrap themselves to keep outside affairs from upsetting their revels.
He did well too. A lady who lives next to the parish hall, and is therefore attuned to the cross-currents of opinion in the thriving metropolis of St. James, said that so far as she could judge, people ''would like to elect Ollie president, just as soon as he's out of jail.''
The comment was made without a hint of irony. And her explanation was equally straightforward: ''We expect people in Washington to lie to us. At least, he tells you when he is lying and when he isn't.''
I may be reading too much into a casual bit of social chatter, but I think my neighbor gave us an important clue, not just to the response North drew, but to the 1988 presidential election and where we are as a nation this summer.
The appropriate text is: ''In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.'' Oliver North is the appropriate hero for a nation which thinks it has lost its way, where 62 percent of those interviewed in the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll said they think things in this country ''have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track'' and only 35 percent said things are ''generally going in the right direction.''
Those numbers measure a public mood as sour as the '70s. In the past year, there's been a resurgence of the cynicism and negativism which marked the Watergate/oil embargo/inflation-scarred years of the past decade. In a less jaded climate, a fellow like North would never strike such a responsive chord. As it is, he has scored a public relations coup by presenting, in diluted fashion, a blend of the virtues people thought they had found in the past two presidents -- only to conclude they had been fooled.
Jimmy Carter emerged from obscurity to win the White House in 1976 with a thousand speeches promising he would ''never lie or mislead you.'' Carter broke people's hearts, not because he deliberately broke faith, but because there were so many issues of governance on which he simply didn't know what he believed. He was for and against so many different measures, at different times, that people decided, perhaps unfairly, that he was a weakling.
So in 1980 they turned to Ronald Reagan, who, they perceived correctly, spoke with conviction and had strong beliefs. Public belief in Reagan's believability was always stronger than support for some of Reagan's policies. But it was sufficient to keep him winning most of the policy battles until the Iran-contra affair gave most Americans an example of Reagan's leadership that they simply could not swallow.
For the second time in seven years, voters disillusioned with their president and discouraged about economic prospects searched the TV screen for a hero. And here came Lt. Col. Oliver North. Now, North is no more than the summer replacement for two big stars who failed to hold their early ratings. He may do better than they did for now, but you know in your heart he's a lesser talent.
Carter promised grandly never to lie to us. North promises that he won't lie -- unless it's necessary to protect a covert operation, or to keep a secret from Congress or to carry out an order he ''assumes'' the president gave.
Reagan espoused convictions which made sense to the American people. Lower taxes, a stronger defense and a balanced budget were attractive goals, even if they seemed implausible in combination. North also has convictions, but they are things most Americans clearly don't want to do: sell arms to Iranians or support an effort to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
Both the credibility and convictions American esteem in our leaders have been discounted radically by the nation's experience with Carter and Reagan. The American people feel like they've been down so long, North looks like up.
If the colonel is an accurate symbol of where this nation is today, then he tells us a lot about the kind of president we will probably choose next year. He will be someone who emotionally displays his capacity for conviction, not someone who exhausts his goodwill explaining exactly what he's done or intends to do. And he will be someone who persuades us he's not like all those Washington politicians, so he won't lie to us -- at least, all the time.
He will be someone, in short, quite unlike those now regarded as the best bets in either party. Not someone adorned with political-governmental credentials, but someone who believes enough to make us, at least for a moment, suspend our massive disbelief.