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A folk hero on trial: the soap opera fans judge ‘Ollie’ North

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A folk hero on trial

The soap opera fans judge `Ollie’ North

In U.S. district courtroom No. 6 on Washington’s Constitution Avenue last week, lawyer Brendan Sullivan peppered a Pentagon mail clerk with questions about her trip to Niagara Falls, Ont., during the weekend of July 4, 1987. Did her Canadian motel have cable television? What programs did she watch? Then Sullivan asked if she had ever seen the handsome figure in a blue business suit sitting impassively at the defence table. For several seconds, she stared intently at retired Lt.-Col. Oliver North, the former White House aide whose six-day televised testimony before the joint congressional committee investigating the Iran-contra arms scandal 19 months ago had rivetted the nation, turning him into an instant folk hero. His face had blanketed TV screens and newspapers in a frenzy of adulation. But “Olliemania,” as headline writers nicknamed it, had clearly escaped the attention of the Pentagon mail clerk. “No,” she shook her head, “I never saw him until yesterday.” With that, she qualified herself to join 54 other Washingtonians–approved by North’s lawyer, Sullivan, as “untainted” by prior knowledge of the case–to serve as potential jurors in his trial on 12 criminal charges stemming from his activities in the foreign policy scandal that rocked Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

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The mail clerk’s startling admission may have dented the celebrity status of the ex-marine who has recycled himself into a $30,000-a-speech star of the banquet circuit, where one host recently hailed him as “America’s hands-on patriot.” At the same time, some lawyers questioned whether jurors who are ignorant of current events are capable of judging North in what promises to be a complex trial. But after another jury nominee testified that catching snippets of news on the Iran-contra hearings–instead of her favorite TV soap operas–“was like looking at the Three Stooges,” one commentator predicted that the jurors may prove more astute than grandstanding congressmen did at unravelling the Iran-contra affair. Noted Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory: “People who follow soap operas can follow evidence and can pick up details that get lost in more cluttered minds.”

North faces charges of blocking or misleading government inquiries into the secret arms sales to Iran, as well as taking gifts and money–including a $16,400 security system–while he was on the government payroll. But more than two years and $13.7 million after special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh began his investigations, those scaled-down charges are all that remain of an original 16-count indictment that once threatened to tarnish even President George Bush.

Early last month, the White House delivered a pivotal blow to Walsh’s case by refusing to release more than 300 classified documents that North claimed he needed for his defence. But some legal experts point out that–by forcing Walsh to drop broadranging charges of conspiracy to defraud the government of $16.6 million in profits from the arms sales–Sullivan may have actually damaged his client’s case. Not only are the remaining charges easier to prove, but, because they involve lying and petty theft, they also diminish the aura that has surrounded North ever since Reagan saluted him as a “national hero.”

In fact, as North showed up for court last week without his uniform and rows of decorations, Olliemania–at least in Washington–appeared to have passed the way of the Hula-Hoop. Outside, no demonstrators marched with placards and not a single vendor peddled Ollie souvenirs. Inside, only 12 spectators dotted the spacious courtroom. But North retains his sense of the dramatic. Ruminating on his trial in an interview in this month’s Life magazine, he declared, “All things being equal, I would prefer to be leading a battalion in harm’s way at the outer edge of the empire.”

Coached by telemarketing expert James McKinney, North has become a fund-raising whiz, churning out speeches and recorded telephone solicitations for the toll-free 800 number of his North Defence Fund. On an average weekend, jetting between personal appearances, accompanied by two bodyguards and a publicist who once worked for televangelist Jerry Falwell, he can make nearly $119,000. North’s efforts earned him about $2.4 million over the past year, supplementing his $26,140-a-year marine pension, paying his seven-member personal staff and defraying his massive legal bills, already estimated to total $3.6 million. But they have also kept the flame of his memory burning in parts of the country that he finds more sympathetic than Washington.

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There, the fading of his star has already led politicians to jettison at least one key measure that resulted from the Iran-contra scandal. Last week, in a gesture of goodwill toward Bush, House Speaker Jim Wright announced that he would not introduce a bill demanding that the White House notify Congress of any covert operation within 48 hours instead of the previously vague “timely” period.

While interest in the trial appears to have diminished, its theatrical potential has not. Prosecutor John Keker, a noted San Francisco defence attorney, has not only developed a reputation for compelling courtroom performances but, like North, is a marine hero of the Vietnam War, with a Purple Heart. In a textbook Keker coauthored two years ago on cross-examination techniques, he declared, “Trials are fun.” But if North succeeds in his attempt to call Reagan to testify–demanding that he show up in person instead of replying in writing–Keker may have trouble convincing the ex-president to share his outlook.

PHOTO : North: a $30,000-a-speech star of the banquet circuit

PHOTO : Reagan: a `national hero’

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