James Dean made but three pictures. His first was "East of Eden," the second was "Rebel Without a Cause," and his last was "Giant." In all of them he played a rebel, an outsider -- everything from a misunderstood teen-ager to a boisterous Texas wildcatter. Thirty two years after his death at age 24, Dean remains a legend -- a poster boy ofthe restless American psyche. The lonerebel forever rides the frontier of our imagination.
Around the country now another poster has gone up. It is of Oliver North, the Marine lieutenant colonel who for a time ran U.S. foreign policy, delegating only unimportant matters to Secretary of State George Shultz. There are also North buttons and several kinds of North T-shirts. Books on North are in hasty preparation, and a bound transcript of his testimony has shot to the top of The New York Times best-seller list for paperbacks. No doubt Hollywood is considering both movies and a television miniseries.
North, of course, is a real-life character, and a shocking one to some people. He has admitted lying to his superiors and to Congress. He said he shredded important documents. He seemed to improvise American foreign policy on the fly, and he cannot, apparently, distinguish between a particular president of the United States and the United States itself. To him, the two are one and the same -- a credo from Louis XIV ("I am the state") rather than James Madison.
Seemingly, there is not much to admire here, but polls say the public thinks otherwise. A recent Washington Post survey found that 64 percent of those questioned about North had a favorable opinion of him. Only 12 percent thought of him unfavorably, and incredible majorities don't want him indicted, or if he is, they want him pardoned by the president. Americans seem to have fallen for North. They like his looks. They like what he said. And probably they like his stunning simplicity. Ambiguity, the plight of the thinking person, seems never to have plagued North. In a confusing world, he knew right from wrong with childlike certainty.
To someone such as myself, there is plenty about North that is downright chilling. But a confession: as he testified, something within me kept yelling, "Atta boy!" Those moments came when North described how he would not let the bureaucracy bog him down, how he shortcutted cumbersome procedures, and when he looked congressmen in the eye and unapologetically said he would do it all over again. Here was the quintessential American rebel thumbing his nose at authority.
Of course, plenty of Americans agree with North -- his ideology, his methods and his politics. And for sure there are others for whom the Constitution is what treaties were for Hitler -- a scrap of paper. But it's hard to believe that Americans approve of public officials lying, of an unsophisticated lieutenant colonel making important foreign policy decisions. But it is not hard to see North as a latter-day James Dean: Rebel for the Contra Cause. He is yet another anti-establishment figure.
Twice in the past two decades, we have come across this phenomenon. In 1968 and again in 1972, two liberal antiwar Democrats -- Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern -- received initial support from hawkish conservative voters. Most of those voters also identified with George Wallace, the one-time segregationist governor of Alabama. This apparently inexplicable and contradictory phenomenon was, in fact, both explicable and consistent. Both Kennedy and McGovern were challenging the power structure. And so was Wallace. Especially in the early going, all three candidates, although remarkably different in ideology, were seen as anti-establishment figures.
Just as it was with James Dean in his movie roles, it's hard not to like what North represents -- as opposed to what he has done. The lying and the shredding are clearly no way to run the government. If that's what the American people truly admire, then those who shake their head with foreboding at the North phenomenon are right to worry.
But more likely North's popularity is nothing but an expression of American orneriness -- a healthy contempt for the political elite by a people whose nationhood began by dumping the king's tea into Boston's harbor. North's rebel pose, his disarming bad-boy manner and his incredible self-righteousness are the stuff of American legend. But most of us have to conform, play by the rules, punch some sort of clock. North's the guy who punched the clock for a loop. We like that for reasons that have nothing to do with North's politics and everything to do with why we still like James Dean: there's a bit of rebel in most of us.