If it is decided that Lt. Col. Oliver North is to be the Lindbergh of the age, historians will note that his epic voyage began aloft on the hot air of a joint congressional investigating committee. Even his last thrilling hours were spent braving scolding winds. What phenomenon of nature can match the terrible gusts of Rep. Lee Hamilton or of Inouye the Proud? Our new Lindbergh may go on to daring adventures, but never again will this Lone Eagle experience the atmospheric turbulence of his last 2 1/2 days on Capitol Hill, during which famous congressmen fluttered before the cameras and gave him hell.
I had not realized that even a joint congressional committee could contain so many war heroes, constitutional scholars, and general hardship cases. Orphans, victims of iniquity, progeny of illiterates -- apparently all are disproportionately represented on Capitol Hill, suggesting that this democracy has a special place for the down-and-out. All these eager autobiographers scowled into the television cameras and assured North that they admired him mightily, though many did join the great Inouye in revealing their suspicion that North had disgraced his uniform, corrupted the nation's youth; and there was something about the Nuremberg trials that Sen. Inouye wanted to explicate, but an objection from North's mouthpiece shook the chamber from its totalitarian alarms.
That was not the only time that North and his counsel heard ''totalitarian values'' attributed to the colonel's efforts. The exuberant Rep. Dante Fascell suggested such enormities earlier, though upon sober reflection he cheerfully apologized.
The contest between North and his antagonists reveals two distinct species of true believers at large in Washington. The first is the true believer about whom all learned sociologists warn, to wit: the anticommunist military goon, the straight-arrow right-winger, the propounder of old-fashioned values. Our second true believer is less famous, for it is considered gauche to shudder when this zealot exposes his pieties and bugaboos. Of all North's congressional antagonists none more vividly embodies the prejudices of our second type than Sen. George Mitchell. Here is the progressive true believer.
This species of true believer fears an Oliver North believes that he is God's agent, that those who disagree with him are unpatriotic, and that reprisals must be taken against fellow citizens. ''God does not take sides in American politics,'' Mitchell reproved, ''and in America, disagreement with the policies of the government is not evidence of lack of patriotism. . . . Americans can criticize their government openly and without fear of reprisal. That is the essence of our freedom. . . ." The senator urged North to debate the issues ''but please do it in a way that respects the patriotism and motives of those who disagree with you.'' Frankly, I never heard the first true believer question Mitchell's patriotism or motives; and I never heard him suggest reprisals against any Americans, but true believers hear things that the rest of us miss.
The true believers opposing North in these hearings repeatedly excoriated him for advocating breaches of the law, though I actually heard North frequently repeat his claim that he did not break the law. Moreover, if the law under consideration is the Boland Amendment, there exists respectable legal opinion supporting North's contention that his activities with the contras were legal. Yet true believers like Sen. Mitchell repeatedly spoke of North as an advocate of selective breaches of the law (civil disobedience) and they scorned him for keeping them in the dark, for instance, on Central America.
This brings to mind a question rarely asked in Washington these days. Why were so many members of Congress and of the press in the dark about Oliver North's extensive international escapades? The fact is the press did not think its interest would be rewarded with headlines and Pulitzer Prizes. Congress did not want, as they say, to stand up and be counted as being for or against opposing communism in Central America.
When Congress passed $27 million of humanitarian aid, none of the joint committees' blowhards monitored the aid. When rumors circulated through Washington about foreign governments such as Israel and Argentina aiding the contras, none of the heroes of the city cared. From at least 1985, anyone who wanted to know knew that a Marine at the National Security Council was working in some way with the contras. Until our Middle Eastern enemies gave them the opportunity, few congressmen wanted to know about the flights of this Lone Eagle.