By Jeffrey Carl
Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.
For weeks, the messages arrived to herald the news. Royal messenger faxes rolled out of the machine, announcing his progress and later his impending arrival. He – Citizen North, Senate Subcommitte Witness North, Celebrity North, Retired Marine Lt. Col. North, “By golly, vote Ollie” North, Candidate North – Oliver North was coming to Westmoreland County.
He is perhaps the most famous public figure in Virginia. He appeared on live national television – under the gun like perhaps only two other men, Clarence Thomas and O.J. Simpson have been – and not only survived, but became a celebrity. He became a folk hero to some, a demon to others. He faced trial and conviction and then was cleared. His face has adorned the cover of national magazines and his picture burned in a Billy Joel video. He was scrutinized over innuendo concerning his secretary, Fawn Hall; he publicly challenged terrorist Abu Nidal to a one-on-one fight; and he was unceremoniously all-but disowned by several major figures of the Reagan administration and the military. But he had survived. And he had prospered. And now he was coming to Westmoreland County.
And now it is 5:10 a.m. on Wednesday, July 27, and the alarm goes off in my apartment in Richmond. I clean up, shave, and dress in an old suit, pre-rumpled to achieve journalistic credibility. It only takes me four tries to tie my tie straight. Then I drink coffee and ride off into the sunrise to meet Candidate North at his first campaign stop.
It is 7:15 a.m., and I’m standing in front of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Montross. There are only a few other people there, standing in front of the plant, and they are obviously other journalists. They wear the standard reporter uniform of rumpled, kinda-nice clothes, armed to the teeth with notepads and vests filled with extra rolls of film.
At 7:28, the Winnebago arrives. The North campaign staff calls it “Asphalt One,” and it is covered from stem to stern in North for Senate posters. The tour mascot is on board, an armadillo – North later says that it represents his tough hide, and he jokingly identifies the armadillo as the “state bird” of Texas, where he was born. North also notes that whenever he is quoted as such, newspapers get letters correcting him that the armadillo is not a bird.
And then Oliver North steps out of Asphalt One. He is dressed in a light blue button-down shirt, tan slacks, and sensible shoes. The flecks of gray in his hair and his boyish face, coupled with his outfit, make him look as if he stepped out of a local theater revival of Mister Roberts, playing the title character. Candidate North has arrived, and he is all smiles and handshakes as he proceeds into the plant.
He walks through the plant, shaking hands and talking, while the reporters circle him at a distance like moths around a porch light. They look at the crates of Coca-Cola products piled to the ceiling, they snap pictures of the employees or the bus, and they try to talk to the randomly-selected spectators for some “local color.”
North campaign’s press coordinator for this stretch of the trip, Dan McLagan, bounds out of the bus. He is accompanied by other soldiers in the cause, armed with bumper stickers and pamphlets, ready to give them to anyone and/or everyone with hair-trigger quickness. Most of the workers in the factory really don’t seem all that excited about any of this.
I wander over to McLagan – an affable character, casually dressed, who occasionally lights one of his Marlboro Lights while he’s talking to you – and he tells me
that the North crew is rested and ready, having spent a fine night in the Inn at Montross, a hundred yards away. The tour begins here, moves to a rally in Colonial Beach at the house of Jeff and Yvonne Kern, and next to the King George Fire Station on Dahlgren Road. McLagan tells me he’ll try to get me “on the bus” somewhere in between, before the tour heads over hill and dale, all over Virginia – it will be a long day for Candidate North and his retinue.
I talk to two local residents who have come out on this frosty morning to wish North well, Jim and Jean Dundas. They talk about how misrepresented and misunderstood North often is by the press, and how his sincere stances have earned him a lot of enemies.
They say it seems that his enemies are unwilling to let the matters of the Iran-Contra hearings rest, and Jim Dundas mention the Central American and Cuban ties of some of the members of the panel that grilled North. He gives me a pamphlet from North’s campaign committee about the “Four big lies about Ollie North and Iran-Contra.”
After a few minutes, the tour group packs up to head to the next destination. The North Winnebago looks like an alien mothership that has collected all its crew – only after leaving behind bumper stickers to monitor the planet while they’re gone – and left for the next solar system. The press members scurry to their cars like Air Force chase planes. I’m one of them.
It’s 8:35 a.m., and I park my car and walk towards the Kerns’ house for the rally. I suppose that Asphalt One drives much closer to a law-abiding 55 miles per hour than I do, since the Winnebago arrives about a minute after me.
There seem to be a about 100 people present, and they clap and cheer and North strides off the bus and on to the house’s porch. There are signs and banners and pamphlets and doughnuts, and the doughnuts are very good.
North ascends the porch steps and, after a mercifully brief introduction, begins his speech.
North supporters will probably disagree with you if you say this, but an impartial viewer observing one of North’s campaign speeches for the first time and knowing nothing else about him would probably conclude that Candidate North’s entire platform is anti-incumbency, anti-the current system.
He pledges to fight the “tyranny of the left.” He says that the moribund monster of the current bureaucracy must be done away with, and that you can only “cut the budget by changing the process.” North says that he doesn’t want to see the reserved congressional parking spots at National Airport in Washington, D.C. to be reserved for him or for anybody – with the possible exception, he says, of making them reserved for disabled veterans. He speaks of getting tough with the criminals that the liberal establishment has mollycoddled. “It’s time,” he says, “that we turn these career criminals into career inmates. We need to weld the doors shut.”
“Some people,” North says, “say I’m not gonna fit in. And they’re right.” North cracks that Jimmy Stewart smile of his. People around me begin to sporadically “Amen” during the rest of the speech. “I’m not going to be invited,” North says, “to the two-cocktails-before-lunch parties, or the Barbra Streisand concerts.”
North tells the flock that he decided to run on the day after the 1993 Presidential Inauguration “when we elected whatsisname.” North calls the Clinton (whatsisname) administration “so liberal it’s scary.” Ollie, being the complete anti-politician, promises to serve at most two terms in the U. S. Senate and then retire from public service.
Undaunted by such claims, a young girl standing near me is wearing a “Ollie North for President” tee-shirt.
Any film student watching this rally could immediately identify the scene: Frank Capra, directing Mr. North Goes to Washington. All political rallies have an overt element of campy super-patriotism to them, but North has pulled out all the stops. The amazing thing about him, though, is that after you talk to the man you become convinced that it isn’t just an act. Oliver North may be the Jimmy Stewart and Apple Pie candidate, for real.
North identifies his one special interest that he will bow to as the families of Virginia. He has a grin that he applies to phrases like, “I believe we’re gonna pull this off…” that makes people all warm and fuzzy inside. Some people are thrilled by his 110 percent All-American traits, and some are frightened by them. Whether he is right or wrong, he communicates an unavoidable air of sincere belief in what he is saying.
Although this seemed to many unthinkable – it still seems that way, to many – recent polls show Oliver North running neck and neck with incumbent Democrat Charles “Chuck” Robb. North has gotten an early start on the campaign, with a TV and campaign tour blitz that has left the other candidates in the dust.
I talk to one of North’s campaign team members about the competition. He says that North has the advantages of an early start and a lot of people willing to donate money to his cause. What about the renegade-Republican independent candidate Marshall Coleman? “We make more money before breakfast than he has this whole campaign,” he says.
This statement may not be all hyperbole; the weekend before the tour, a fax arrived from the Oliver North for Senate Committee, declaring that the North Campaign had broken the towering $10,000,000 mark. North proudly notes that the average contribution is under $30, showing his ties to the individual voter; opponents claim that more than half of the recent contributions have come from California, rather than Virginia.
North closes the speech by asking the crowd for three things. “First, your prayers,” he says. “They say that you can’t win a campaign these days by talking about the power of prayer … we shall see.” More “Amens” are heard from throughout the crowd, but not as many as when he was talking about budget deficit reduction. “I’m living proof of the power of prayer,” he says, and smiles earnestly.
“The second is your pledges,” he says, adding that it is the everyday voter that provides the campaign with the money and the volunteers to keep going.
“And third, I ask you,” North says, “to reach out and find five people who didn’t vote in the last election, and make sure they vote in this one.”
Having concluded his speech, North opens up the floor to questions for one of his “people’s press conferences,” where the people have a chance to ask the questions and not depend upon the “liberal media” for their information.
One woman asks how people react to his having lied to Congress. North answers – he has probably only had to answer this particular question about five thousand times – that he did not lie to congress, and that an examination of the facts will show that he stayed true to his duty and followed his orders. The ghost of Iran-Contra will be summoned forth wherever Retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North goes for a very long time.
Jeff Kern, who has been standing behind North on the porch, steps forward and announces that unfortunately the tour is behind schedule, and North will only have
limited time. And yet North manages to talk to as many people as he can, smiling and shaking hands.
I ask local resident Susan Wallcraft why she came to the rally. “I’d heard about it at the town council meeting,” she said. Is she a prospective North voter? “Yes,” she says, “we’ve pretty well decided, after we found that he really hadn’t lied to congress.”
Dan McLagan tracks me down amidst the mob leaving the rally, and leads me to Asphalt One to wait for North to finish. He offers me a coke, or some grapes, even though their refrigerator is pretty sparsely stocked. I take a Pepsi, and fumble through my notes.
And then North gets in the bus. He reaches across the aisle and shakes my hand firmly.
The Winnebago pulls away from Jeff and Yvonne Kern’s house, and Oliver North perches on a seat across from me. The lady in the front passenger seat says, “Wave to the folks, colonel,” and he turns around to the window and waves at the last few supporters who line the road.
Then it is just me and Oliver North. I work out the nervous lump that has been building in my throat and I ask a question. In fact, I ask several. Here are the results:
What is the last good book that Oliver North read? “Well, I’m still in the process of reading Bill Bennett’s Book of Virtues,” he says.
How does it feel to be a celebrity? “It would be fine if I were a rock star,” he says, “but it’s not something I intended to be. I just wanted to be a marine.”
Doesn’t all the negative attention sometimes hurt, like the sharply-barbed recent jabs in the nationally-syndicated comic strip Doonesbury? “No, you just get used to it,” he says. “That Doonesbury stuff – well, some of it’s actually funny.”
What did the young Ollie want to be when he grew up? “I went through all the usual stages,” North muses, “fireman, policeman, cowboy …” But by the time he graduated high school, he knew that the service was the life for him. “I’m lucky enough,” he says, “to have been able to do something I really wanted to do for 22 years.”
Who are Oliver North’s heroes? His father, he says. Ronald Reagan is named, as is his wife Betsy. North also cites as a hero “the young machine gunner who saved my life in Vietnam.” He says that his heroes are also all the people who work hard for themselves and succeed.
What would he have to do in his life, for him to consider it – in the final accounting – to have been worthwhile? “I’ve already done it,” he says, “by being a good father and a good husband.” He says that he puts a lot of stock in the Marine motto, semper fidelis: always faithful.
Does he belong to a particular church? “Yes, we attend the Church of the Apostles, in Fairfax.” He says that he has not always been as personally religiously committed as he is today, but he was brought up in a good Christian household, and knew what he believed in.
If he could change one thing about himself, what would Oliver North change? “I’d give myself less pride in being a self-made man,” he says. “Pride leads to thick-headedness.” I think to myself that the Bible also says that “pride goeth before a tumble.”
Who came up with the “By golly, vote Ollie” slogan? “It came from a supporter,” he says. “Most of them come from clever people who just think them up themselves.” He produces a stack of bumper stickers given to him by a supporter who dreamed up a slogan and then printed it: a reminder to vote for North, or “Get Robbed.”
What is, at the heart, the essence of America? “Well,” he says, “I can’t reduce it to a bumper sticker.” But he does say that America is a nation “blessed with bounty beyond measure,” and founded around one word: “liberty.”
North praises the Bill of Rights, and says that “you get a sense, in the seminal documents of this nation, that we didn’t get these rights from the government; we were blessed with them.”
“But,” he says, “200 years later – in just the last 90 days – you can see these rights being violated.” He cites the abridgement of abortion protesters’ First Amendment right to assemble peacably. He notes the violations of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms by anti-gun legislation. North says that the Fourth Amendment protection form illegal search and seizure is not being received by poor black mothers in public housing whose houses are invaded by the police.
He cites the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee that the government cannot seize property without fair recompense, and then says that the Environmental Protection Agency can come along and “declare your land a protected wetland, and the value is destroyed. You can’t build anything on it.” North warns of the danger of “environmental radicals.”
“You have to stop,” North says, “and say, ‘What happened to these amendments?’”
What about North’s recent statement that drug users should receive penalties nearly as high as those for drug dealers? Is drug use a moral wrong, or a societal wrong?
“All law is based on moral law,” North says. “There’s nothing in the Ten Commandments about the 55 mile per hour speed limit,” he says while I think ack to beating the Winnebago to the rally after it had a three-minute head start, “but the moral idea is there – you don’t go too fast, or you’ll hurt yourself or someone else.”
“There is no stigma against drug use in this country,” North says, “and there needs to be.”
How, then, does that idea relate to alcohol and tobacco? North waves this off on the grounds of alcohol and tobacco not being impairing drugs like drugs are. “There are laws,” he says, “about how much alcohol you can drink, so you’re not impaired. And tobacco is not an impairing drug.”
He cites how much more dangerous drugs are than they have been in the more permissive past: “The marijuana people are smoking today has much more HTC [Tetrahydracannabis, or THC, the active narcotic in marijuna] than it did 25 years ago.” I don’t correct him on the spelling, and the bus slows down as we approach the next rally.
“Um,” I ask, “could I get an autograph for my little brother?”
“Sure thing,” North says, and writes one: “To Matthew– very best, Oliver L. North.” I thank him and shake his hand and Oliver is gone and Candidate North is back.
At 9:28, Asphalt One’s door opens and North steps out into the light. I follow him out the door and am greeted by the sight of a rally teeming with probably 250 supporters, festooned with ribbons and bunting. From the loudspeakers, John Phillip Souza’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” booms loudly.
As North ascends the podium, the rally begins with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer, led by a local minister. During the prayer, he adds, “Lord – let this campaign be judged by the facts, and not by the liberal media …” I notice that, as a member of the news media, nobody seems to be trying to get my vote this election.
In fact, right now, in this place, I’m probably just about the bottom man on the totem pole in the whole crowd. Being a reporter for a weekly newspaper, like the Westmoreland News, will get you about zero clout points with the other reporters. Being
a reporter at all gets me about zero love points from everyone else besides the reporters and North’s press representatives. And being 21 years old gets me about negative five credibility points with anybody – you’re less a cub reporter to them than a Cub Scout.
The rally continues with typical patriotic rally style. A retired Marine general is introduced, who speaks very favorably of North’s military reputation and his abilities. North makes a speech – quite understandably – almost exactly like the last one he gave.
I ask a reporter from the Richmond Times-Dispatch how he handles listening to the same speeches all day. He shrugs. He asks me if I’m getting off the tour here, and I say yes. “You won’t miss a thing,” he says. Behind us, a woman drives by the rally, scowls at the assembled throng, and waves a downturned thumb.
Dan McLagan tells me that I can climb up onto the roof of Asphalt One to get a picture if I like. I thank him and climb up, until a minute later a hefty man with a few wisps of hair in front sidles over and barks, “Get down from there!” I bleat out, like a caught third grader, “But somebody said I could just …” “I don’t care who said what,” he says. “It’s dangerous. Get down from there.” I step down the ladder and secretly wish that I slip and break my neck and boy will he be sorry.
North’s speech finishes, and he spends probably half an hour milling through the crowd, shaking hands, smiling, and answering questions. He talks on camera with a reporter from a Fredericksburg cable station. The supporters slowly begin to drift away. And then North hops back into the bus, and waves at the last 30 or so supporters.
The Winnebago backs out slowly onto the road, and Candidate North waves again. Then Asphalt One slips away and on to the rest of its day, which is only beginning. I’ve only been on the campaign trail three hours, and I’m exhausted. Oliver L. North has come and gone. It’s 10:35 a.m., and I need a cigarette badly.