With his blue-steel gaze and steel-gray hair, Lt. Col. Oliver North looked like a movie star against the stale browns and beiges of C-SPAN. His cowlick and gaptoothed grin, though, reminded you of an old neighbor or college roommate. And his voice was mesmerizing when first deployed on the American public during the epic Iran-contra hearings of 1987 — lowering to a reverential hush, or hiccuping with emotion, as if he were drunk on patriotism.
He was a riveting presence and an immediately polarizing one — hailed by some as an American hero, reviled by others as a subversive Deep State troublemaker for his role overseeing the illegal sale of arms to Iran and funneling the proceeds to rebels fighting the Nicaraguan government. Ollie North seemed destined to play a major role in our culture and politics.
Instead, he was ensnared in years of legal trouble, then lost a pricey U.S. Senate race — and all that potential seemed to evaporate. But here he is now, at 74, with a shot at a third act, another charge at the front lines of the culture wars as the new president of the National Rifle Association. And once again, everyone has opinions about him.
“Oliver North is a true hero and warrior for freedom,” said Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the NRA, in a statement Monday.
“Oliver North in the news is a reminder of what a really stupid Iran deal actually looks like,” tweeted Jim Goldgeier, a visiting senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“He throws himself into the fire, if he thinks it’s a worthy cause,” says close friend Brendan Sullivan, his attorney throughout the Iran-contra affair. “And of course he’s once again stepping up, knowing that this is a very difficult time in our country, where people are bitterly divided about the Second Amendment and what it means.”
The appointment came as a surprise to North last week. He consulted with his wife and a few other confidantes, and the verdict was unanimous: He is, once again, the man for the moment.
“I like the idea of a good fight,” says North, from the Virginia office of Freedom Alliance, his military charity. “Over the course of the last two or three months, in particular, the attacks [on the NRA] are personal, legal, financial, digital — and they are physical against some people who run the institution.” He’s got issues, too, with the media, which he sees as “using the First Amendment to attack the Second Amendment.”
One of his goals: Add 1 million members to the NRA’s membership rolls, already nearly 6 million strong.
For many Americans, North’s valor was untarnished by the scandal that triggered his celebrity — the covert actions that violated both an arms embargo against Iran and a congressional ban on funding the contra rebels, and got him indicted on 16 counts, including conspiring to defraud the government.
“I misled the Congress,” North said in July 1987, eyes lasered on his interrogators during six days of congressional testimony. He went on, his finger raised: “Furthermore, I did so with a purpose. I saw that idea of using the Ayatollah Khomeini’s money to support the Nicaraguan freedom fighters as a good one. I still do. I don’t think it was wrong. I think it was a neat idea.”
It was the summer of “Full Metal Jacket,” the Stanley Kubrick movie that brought the blistering Marines experience to the big screen. Now Hollywood was setting alarms for 6 a.m. Pacific time to watch a real-life Marine face down enemy after enemy, in the guise of surly congressmen.
“The best actor I’ve seen on television,” a vice president of a Hollywood production company told The Washington Post at the time.
On the radio, you could hear celebratory jingles like “Ollie B. Good.”
“People like the idea of the little guy beating up on the big guys,” said a Cincinnati DJ, referring to the phalanx of congressmen, staffers and attorneys who couldn’t take him down.
Restaurants named sandwiches after him.
“It consists of red-blooded American beef,” said a proprietor in Tonawanda, N.Y., of his version. “And a little bologna.” (On a hero roll. With a “top secret” Iranian sauce.)
A boy scout and an altar boy, North grew up near Albany, N.Y. At the Naval Academy, he outboxed future senator Jim Webb for an intramural championship. He graduated in 1968 and went to Vietnam, managing to command his men through a firefight even after suffering injuries. He earned two Purple Hearts. Back home, he taught guerrilla warfare in Quantico, where he wore camouflage face paint “as perfect as if Hollywood had done it,” according to a fellow instructor. He left the Catholic Church in the late ’70s and became a born-again Christian. He joined the staff of Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council in 1981.
For North, the Iran-contra affair went on well beyond 1987. Some of the criminal charges against him were dismissed or dropped; he was convicted on others but they were reversed on appeal.
So he was free and clear by the time the GOP needed a 1994 challenger to Virginia’s then-Sen. Chuck Robb (D). This was his big moment — a chance to see whether Olliemania could translate into real power.
On the trail, he could be both warm and combative. “Whose side are you on?” he would bellow in his fiery stump speech, like it was judgment day.
Wasn’t his role in Iran-contra “a great disservice to your country?” Judy Woodruff asked during a four-candidate debate. “It all comes down to what the motives and objectives were,” replied North, the only man on stage without a suit jacket, sleeves rolled as if ready for a street fight. “The guiding principle behind every bit of that was to save lives. . . . I’m the most investigated man on this planet. I’ve got nothing to hide from anybody.” The audience cheered his candor, his gumption, his survival.
“Oliver North has betrayed President Reagan, he has betrayed the American people, and now he is trying to betray the people of Virginia,” Sen. John Warner, a fellow Republican, said at the time. Reagan himself denounced North for “false statements” about the Oval Office’s role in Iran-contra. Even Nancy Reagan spoke up: “Ollie North has a great deal of trouble separating fact from fantasy.”
The campaign was portrayed in the documentary “A Perfect Candidate,” whose filmmakers were compelled by North’s “Clintonian” presence, as co-director R.J. Cutler puts it. “He had the unique quality of being able to look you in the eye and persuade you, simply by his engagement, that you were the only person in the room.”
The film is both a time capsule and a harbinger of today’s politics. During a campaign photo op, North blasts a shotgun at a skeet-shooting range. “What do we shoot?” a nearby supporter asks her toddler son, holding a toy rifle, who dutifully replies: “Clay pigeons and Democrats.”
“In a way he’s the perfect NRA president for the Trump era,” says David Van Taylor, Cutler’s fellow director, “because not only is he unapologetically angry and defiant, but also here’s a guy who was conducting international foreign policy in the shadowy netherworld before anybody even heard of the word ‘collusion.’ ”
The film captured North’s knack for connecting with rural Virginians: “I get asked all the time by people: ‘How do you get through all that?’” North says in one campaign stop at a church, referring to both his years in Vietnam and his years in court. “And I tell them I happen to know His grace is sufficient.”
And yet for all of North’s theatrical humility, campaign manager Mark Goodin admits in the film that “North is the triumph of anger in politics,” and that “getting people elected, unfortunately, has a lot to do with dividing.” The campaign communications director, Mark Merritt, notes in the film that “the reason people like Ollie is because of Iran-contra. . . . Not in spite of it, but because of it.”
But North lost, by fewer than 3 percentage points, and that was it for his pursuit of public office. He decamped to the speakers circuit. He focused on Freedom Alliance. He obtained patents for military gear. He wrote long novels (“The Jericho Sanction” is 624 pages) and guest-starred on “JAG.” He became a war correspondent and pundit on Fox News, where he notched dozens of embeds and summoned that trademark defiance, once declaring that the U.S. military could lose 30 percent of its volunteer force if gay people were allowed to serve openly.
This year he celebrates 50 years of marriage to Betsy. They live on her family farm in Virginia just this side of the Shenandoah River. He has 17 grandchildren. His email signature comes with this message: “SEMPER FIDELIS IS MORE THAN THE SLOGAN FOR THE U.S. MARINES. ‘ALWAYS FAITHFUL’ IS A WAY OF LIFE.”
And now, as incoming NRA president — a job once held by Charlton Heston, an actual movie star — he’s back where he’s most comfortable: at a command post in a battle for the soul of America, us versus them, coming soon to your favorite cable-news show.
“It is a fight,” North says, of his job and of life in general. “At the end of the day — and the end is probably not too far away from me — I want my grandchildren to be able to say, ‘My granddad taught me how to fight the good fight, how to finish the race, how to keep the faith.’ And you don’t have to be a bunghole to say that to people. You don’t have to scream it at the top of your lungs. It’s how you act. And now I want to go recruit.”