Patrick Buchanan is the Joan Rivers of the conservative movement. The former White House aide to both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan says what others only think. For instance, he recently praised the works of Oliver North and called on President Reagan to offer him a pardon. North, he wrote, is that most moral of men -- "forced into a moral dilemma by an immoral act of Congress."

According to Buchanan's logic, the colonel was obeying a higher law than the Boland Amendment, a mere congressional act restricting aid to the Nicaraguan contras. North was drawn to his martyrdom by a morality he felt compelled to uphold. Some say he was a man like one Buchanan would never mention admiringly: Martin Luther King Jr.

But Buchanan, along with many other conservatives, loathed King. The civil rights leader was forever asserting his moral right to break the law and for that, even years later, Buchanan was unforgiving. Never mind that King was battling unjust laws and seeking basic rights for blacks. None of this mattered to Buchanan. He held the law and obedience to it higher than civil rights itself.

In 1969, the year following the murder of King, Buchanan urged President Nixon not to visit Coretta Scott King on the first anniversary of her husband's death. In a memo to the president, Buchanan said it was difficult to see how Nixon could "possibly argue as a moral leader against the doctrine of civil disobedience when he pays homage to its foremost practitioner in our time." Of course, Buchanan had other complaints. He seemed genuinely revolted by King's extramarital affairs, diligently documented by the FBI.

But when it comes to law-breaking by North, either alleged or real, Buchanan has no qualms: "For all this moralizing about 'The end does not justify the means,' the truth is that the colonel's aims were noble and his means -- secrecy and shredding documents -- licit or not, were not inherently immoral," Buchanan wrote in a Post article last Sunday. In other words, the end justifies the means -- just as long as Buchanan agrees with the end and presumably the means are not too awful.

But, upon closer examination, King did not use North's tactics. This historical fact seems to have been overlooked by some columnists who have recently compared North with King and accused those most loathsome of all creatures -- liberals -- of a hypocritical double standard: how can King be honored for breaking the law and North condemned for possibly doing the same? The answer is, "It's easy." And the reason goes to the very heart of why North is not a hero, American or otherwise.

King did more than merely proclaim himself the servant of a higher morality. His breaking of the law was a mere instrumentality, a tactic he used to challenge it. He did this openly. As a consequence, he was jailed for his activities, risked his life on numerous occasions and, in the end, gave it for his cause. He had ultimate faith in the American creed and the essential decency of the American people. In the end he was vindicated.

North did no such thing. He operated secretly. He lied to both his colleagues and his superiors. He lied to Congress. What he calls a routine covert operation was nothing of the sort. It was not a secret to the Iranians, who received arms for hostages, or to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, who knew the war they were involved in was being funded by the United States. The secret was kept only from the American people, for the simple reason that the arms-for-hostages deal contradicted the president's stated policy, and aiding the contras was prohibited by law. This is neither heroism nor candor -- nor particularly American.

The British newsweekly The Economist is generally admiring of the United States. Among the things it likes is our legal system -- the way we work things out. But North circumvented our legal system (his means) because he believed so fervently in his joint goal of freeing the hostages and supporting the contras (his end). From afar, The Economist had an observation about those who say the end justifies the means: "That has been the philosophy not just of the villains who have caused millions to die . . . {but} also the view of the apparatchiks who served them, many probably as decent and as well-meaning as Ollie North."

The sharp logic of The Economist is lost on Buchanan and others who plump for North's pardon and, like so many Americans, swoon at his songs of derring-do. Instead, they ought to review the career of Martin Luther King, who never lost faith in either the American people or their system. Unlike North, he changed the law by breaking it in public. That's why he got a Nobel Prize and North would settle for a pardon.