Tuesday morning at Southwest Airlines Gate 1 of Austin's Robert Mueller Airport, and the Ollie North miniseries is opening in the lounge. The big-screen television set on the wall plays to a packed house -- strangers to one another who nevertheless develop a sense of community as they witness this national event.

First, they try to place North in the celebrity context. "My gosh," says Mary Frances Hardin of Brownsville, "he sounds just like Jimmy Stewart! It's like Mr. North Goes to Washington."

"Yeah, but he's acting like a cowboy," says Larry Moriarity, an electrical engineer from Austin. "Clint Eastwood. The guy even used an old Eastwood film title -- 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' -- in one of his answers."

Then they consider his sincerity. An elderly doctor from Waco thinks North is telling the truth -- within a very narrow, military context. "I feel sorry for him," the doctor says. "He's just the sacrificial lamb in this story. He's trying to save the president. There's no way a lieutenant colonel could be as powerful as he seems to have been. . . . I just feel sorry for him."

"I think it's pretty sick, myself," says Moriarity, the conservatively dressed electrical engineer. "I think he would do anything to protect the president."

On the screen, North is smiling slyly. House counsel John W. Nields Jr. has just announced the line of questioning he'll pursue after a brief recess, to which North responds: "That's a cliffhanger of an ending." Moriarity and the doctor laugh, but Hardin and her sister, Harriett Molloy of Chicago, shake their heads and roll their eyes.

"They ought to get fencing swords out and settle it with a duel," Hardin says. "That'd save us all a lot of money."

Ollie North is everywhere: on the screen, on the cover of all the news magazines people are reading. The airline agents are even getting into it, adding a few oohs and ahs at appropriate moments of the testimony. The crowd seems unsympathetic to North, but store manager Tom Barbazett offers him some support: "This is just a public hanging," he said. "They're stringing him up. I don't know if he's doing the right thing, but Congress should not bring all this out in the public. Everyone knew that Reagan was going to do something to get money to the contras. So he found a way, so what?"