Was the president above the law? What did he approve, and when? And would any evidence of misconduct emerge that would allow Democrats and other allies to muster votes for the president’s impeachment?
It was 1987.
Ronald Reagan was president, and Oliver North, a staffer on the National Security Council, was taking the stand in a congressional inquiry into the Iran-contra affair, a multifaceted covert scheme in which profits from weapons sales to Iran were funneled under the table to right-wing rebels in Nicaragua who were fighting the country’s socialist government. One of the biggest political scandals of its day — and one that cast a negative pall over the Reagan administration — the scheme represented sharp violations of American law and policy.
The news on Monday that North, the lightning rod former Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, would take over as the president of the National Rifle Association drew a cascade of commentary and heated jabs from many left-leaning commentators.
North, a staunch conservative who has found a rebirth as a commentator on Fox News, is perhaps best known for his central role in the illicit arms deals. North was fired from his post as an aide on the National Security Council by Reagan shortly after the scandal spilled into public view in the news media in 1986 and began to widen. An amendment passed in Congress earlier in the decade had prohibited most government funds or military support from being given to the contra rebels.
North, who had helped carry out the schemes, was the most anticipated witness called to the Hill for a hearing hosted by a congressional inquiry into the affair.
Tens of millions of people tuned into the proceedings, a national news event that occupied The Washington Post’s front page for days and one whose aura and stage-worthy drama — “Olliemania,” The Post called it — earned it coverage in the newspaper’s Style section, as well.
“The day-long show proved again that Washington can still outdo Hollywood in the production of high-yield dramatic blockbusters,” The Post reported.
Reporters talked to people listening to North’s hearing all around the country: on a plane, where travelers were asking flight attendants to tune in on the aircraft; at a liberal radio station in North Hollywood; at a bar in Cape Cod.
Another Post report related an anecdote about an investment banker listening on a portable television on the D.C. Metro near Vienna.
“Not since former White House counsel John W. Dean III testified during the Watergate hearings 13 summers ago have so many people gone to such lengths to watch a congressional witness,” reporter T.R. Reid wrote. “Those who weren’t interested in his testimony had to go to nearly equal lengths to avoid it.”
Dressed in a forest green Marine Corps uniform adorned with six rows of ribbon and, at least some days, lightly tinted glasses, North, then 43, captivated audiences with his testimony, for which he was given immunity. The hearings spanned six days.
“I came here to tell you — the truth, the good, the bad, and the ugly,” he said at the outset on July 7, 1987. “And I am here to accept responsibility for that which I did. I will not accept responsibility for that which I did not do.”
He admitted that he had shredded key documents about the initiatives, but said he was doing what his superiors wanted and disclosed that CIA Director William Casey had been aware of some of his activities. And North “openly admitted that he had lied to ‘unwitting’ Reagan administration officials, misled Congress and the public, falsified and destroyed official documents as part of a preconceived coverup plan designed to protect his superiors, and specifically the president. But he also implicated higher-ups with his repeated assertions that all of his actions had been approved by higher authority,” The Post reported.
But though North said he believed that Reagan had tasked him with keeping “the body and soul” of the contras together, he gave no evidence that Reagan had directly authorized or been informed of the specifics of the plans.
“Throughout the conduct of my entire tenure at the National Security Council, I assumed that the president was aware of what I was doing and had, through my superiors, approved it,” North testified. “To my recollection, Admiral [John] Poindexter never told me that he met with the president on the issue of using residuals from the Iranian sales to support the Nicaraguan resistance. Or that he discussed the residuals or profits for use by the contras with the president. Or that he got the president’s specific approval. Nor did he tell me that the president had approved such a transaction. But again, I wish to reiterate throughout I believed that the president had indeed authorized such activity.”
After North had been fired, Reagan called him and told him, “I just didn’t know,” North said.
North’s appearances apparently resonated. An ABC News poll cited by The Post at the time found that 92 percent of the public thought that North did well in defending his actions; 64 percent came to see him as a victim and not a villain in the scandal.
North had argued that he had lied in order to save lives if the operations, which were covert, had been disclosed, and portrayed himself “as a loyal subordinate following what he believed to be the lawful instructions of his superiors,” The Post wrote.
“Indeed, day after day, Lt. Col. Oliver North gained an increasingly strong emotional stranglehold on many Americans as he cleverly projected himself as a brave, America-loving Marine who put the nation’s interest above that of even his family,” Post columnist Dorothy Butler Gilliam wrote.
North was later convicted in 1989 of abetting the obstruction of Congress, destroying documents and receiving an illegal gratuity, but the conviction was later dismissed because of complications stemming from the immunity he was given for his congressional testimony. Facing an appeal from North, prosecutors concluded that they could not prove that all the trial witnesses had been unaffected by the televised testimony from 1987.
“When I teach the Iran Contra Affair and Oliver North to intro IR students, they stare at me in total disbelief,” Colby College political scientist Laura Seay wrote on Twitter. “Like, they literally don’t believe a story that crazy could be true. In real life. Under Reagan.”