If the truth is being told and Oliver L. North and President Reagan never saw each other alone, it's a shame.
All presidents deserve congenial company in what, until Reagan's time, was called the "splendid misery" of the office, and you could search the world and not find people more in tune than the 43-year-old Marine and the 76-year-old president who hated to fire him.
For openers, both are happy cold warriors with a manly weakness for covert action and a deep aversion to bureaucrats. They share a passion for quips and contras and a feeling that the function of Congress is to serve as a straight man for stout fellows like them.
They both like good yarns and are not above embroidering them. They don't care for rules much. North was a meticulous bureaucrat in some respects: He may not have kept track of the millions in arms profits that were steered into retired general Richard V. Secord's Swiss bank account, but he recorded "every penny" he received from the contra fund in a ledger given him by the late CIA director William J. Casey -- at whose behest, he earnestly told the select committees on the scandal, he shredded it "to save lives."
Reagan's National Security Council advisers were not much company for him. Robert C. McFarlane is a lugubrious man who talks like a form letter from the IRS and his successor, then-Vice Adm. John M. Pointdexter, wouldn't make his day. Ollie North was the young Ronald Reagan, playing in real life parts that Reagan only got in the movies. It's too late now, but Reagan would have loved to see North coming through the door, with his straight back, his bashed nose, his deep-set gray eyes glinting with fun, his head full of plots that Congress couldn't know about even if the commies did.
The old master could not teach the new daytime star anything about television. North has taken the box by storm. He has the same kind of voice as the Gipper, a light tenor with a little break in it for emotional moments, like when he says the whole Cabinet was with him in the mess or that he has been faithful to his wife "since the day I married her." His neck is as scrawny as a boy's, and he plays the vulnerable scamp.
Vulnerable, but not helpless. He is gabby and answers questions he has not been asked -- his fidelity for instance, was not an issue -- and he has as his sidekick a quarrelsome attorney, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., who has attacked the committees for everything but the shape of the witness table.
It's a pity, too, that Reagan could not have watched North's debut on his favorite medium. He was too busy the first day, out on the road the second. Not only did North lend the light touch of a game-show host to the proceedings, he vetoed all suggestions that "the boss" knew about the diversion of funds, or "residuals" as North calls them. After one preposterous answer to John W. Nields Jr., the correct but plainly angry young chief House counsel who was trying to persuade North that something serious was afoot, North added the flourish of a plaintive, playful "Sir?" that drew titters in the room.
He was as protective of the president as Sullivan was of him. He used Sullivan for a little byplay his second day on the stand. When Nields asked a question that North didn't mind answering, he reversed their roles and laid a hand on Sullivan's sleeve saying, to more laughs, "Please, counsel."
He had visual aids, the kind of props Reagan favors for television shows. Protesting that he did "not want to overdramatize this," a remark that fractured spectators, he produced a huge blowup of the terrorist Christmas attack on the Rome airport. He was explaining how come, after a threat from Abu Nidal, he had accepted an expensive security system for his home. He pointed out one of the victims, an 11-year-old girl, continuing in a cracking voice, "I have an 11-year-old daughter, too."
And so he made the "grossest misjudgment I have ever made in my life." From someone who readily admits that he lied and shredded in the White House, it was a suggestion of a moral compass minus a North Star.
But it was Congress' fault, he said, echoing a familiar Reagan beef. He thanked Secord publicly and said, "You guys ought to write him a check because the government should have done it in the first place."
Committee efforts to housebreak the frisky witness were unavailing. Since they are trying to to show him law and order, they forbade him to read his opening statement, because he failed to follow the rules. He managed to work in some of its themes, saying apropos of nothing, "I came here to tell the truth, the good, the bad and the ugly."
That's the name of a movie that he seems to be living, as he says, "to this day" or "at this point in time."