Skip to content

The Loser King

Failing upward with Oliver North

It’s easy to imagine much of recent political history being recorded in tell-all memoirs with titles like Maybe I Did It, What’s Your Problem? or Yeah I Did It, What’s Your Point? Three years into the Trump era, you can be sure that if the president or one of his henchmen is caught violating the law or abusing the Constitution, no concession will be offered. The defense strategy is to fall back on one of two responses, and sometimes both at once. It’s all the same; only the names have changed. Never admit to wrongdoing say the party hacks—or if you do, don’t admit the wrongdoing was wrong—and make sure to go on the offensive by attacking your critics as scolds, weaklings, traitors, or some combination thereof, as adamantly and as publicly as possible.

Trump learned this technique early in life, schooled by his hard-driving real estate tycoon father and, later, the amoral mob lawyer Roy Cohn. Of course, “deny everything” has been the practice of thugs as long as there’s been thuggery. But there was a moment at the beginning of this year that put a spotlight on how and when it became essential to the political strategy of the modern GOP. Trump had just approved the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and in the days of media coverage that followed, Fox News’ leading Trump apologist Sean Hannity turned to an expert of sorts on Iranian skullduggery: retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North. Predictably, North approved of Trump’s explanation of the killing, saying, “I don’t think he backed down at all,” and calling Trump “Reaganesque” in his decision-making.

The irony of having North, who was convicted in 1989 of crimes connected to illegally selling weapons to Iran, promote “Reaganesque” stances as if that were a compliment was widely noted. Yet the resonant absurdity of the moment goes well beyond that. To have Oliver North pop up on Fox News as a “military analyst,” or as an authority on anything, was one more reminder of how permeated the American right is with losers who keep failing upward, authorities who have no moral authority, figures who recognize that setbacks aren’t setbacks if you don’t acknowledge them and who know that in politics a certain kind of belligerence will always trump honesty. The career of Oliver North may look like it is marked by dramatic public failures: he was caught red-handed in the Iran-Contra affair, but then his convictions were overturned in 1990; he ran for Senate from Virginia in 1994 and lost, even as a documentary film team recorded every twist and turn in the bitter defeat for posterity; he ascended to the presidency of the National Rifle Association in May of 2018 and a year later was embroiled in a nasty public battle for control of the organization—a battle he lost decisively, partially because of his own penchant for playing fast and loose with other people’s money.

Yet North remains an admired figure on the Republican right. Along with Reagan himself, he pioneered the kind of “resolute,” unapologetic television performance that changes one’s political fortunes overnight—a lesson well-learned by other figures who would later come under attack, such as Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, and of course Trump himself. Another example of how being conservative means never having to say you’re sorry.

A Little Bologna

The Iran-Contra scandal, which dominated the news cycles of the mid-eighties and tainted Reagan’s avuncular presidential image, was the first post-Watergate example of a Republican administration conducting brashly illegal activity and then turning the tables on inquisitors in Congress and the media. And in Oliver North’s case, blustering his way out of the jam worked—he never served time in prison, and his reputation on the right was only enhanced. To summarize the complex and multifaceted dirty deals briefly: In 1984 Congress decided that it would stop funding the Contras, a group of ruthless anticommunist insurgents in Nicaragua. The Boland Amendment decreed that “no funds” were to be expended for “military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua.” Having lost congressional support, but not wanting to give up on the insurrection against the Sandinista government, Reagan instructed his national security advisor to keep supporting the Contras anyway, and the gung-ho National Security Council staffer Oliver North was tapped to coordinate the secret campaign. Naturally, several members of the administration lied to Congress to keep it covered up.

After Reagan handily won reelection in 1984, the administration decided, over the objection of some of the staff, to try to enlist Iran to help negotiate the release of American hostages in Lebanon (which didn’t work) by selling them Israeli castoff weapons which they could use to win their war with Iraq (which also didn’t work)—even though the official administration policy was never negotiate with hostage-takers. The proceeds from the arms sales were used to keep funding the Contras. Once the story broke internationally in November of 1986, North and his secretary Fawn Hall had what was later described as a “shredding party” to eliminate incriminating documents. When North was forced to testify the following July, he claimed that he’d been granted approval from his superiors for everything and that, as far as he was concerned, selling arms to Iran for American hostages and illegally arming Nicaraguan militias was “a neat idea.”

Watching North’s testimony now that we’ve gotten used to the idea of politics as the natural next step for actors and celebrities, it’s clear he treated his appearance before Congress as a star turn. North arriving at the hearing of a joint congressional investigative committee in uniform with all of his medals pinned to his chest is like a varsity quarterback donning his letterman jacket when called into the principal’s office. Unfortunately, there were plenty of members of Congress who were cowed by North’s studly glamor and took the opportunity to praise North’s combat experience in Vietnam in front of the cameras, even defending his previous lies to Congress, conveniently eliding the rule of law that all that conspicuous patriotism is supposed to be dedicated to upholding in the first place.

Being conservative means never having to say you’re sorry.

One Hollywood executive told the Washington Post at the time that North was “the best actor I’ve seen on television.” North had a knack for reassembling his boyish features to assume whatever expression would help him get through the next question: one minute he presented himself as an aw-shucks good-old-boy type whose only real fault was in trying just too darn hard to do the right thing by his beloved country, and the next he was a tough SOB who wouldn’t take any guff from those lily-livered bigwigs. As if on cue, North got misty-eyed about his patriotic intentions, he cracked jokes and even suggested that he’d like to beat up one of his Iranian contacts if he ever got the chance. Like Trump’s perpetual campaigning, the performative bluster and outrage works best if the audience is already willing to buy into it. If not, it’s unbelievably galling to have to sit through.

Not long after North’s testimony, and after almost all of the facts were in about his illegal shenanigans, Christopher Hitchens couldn’t keep himself from chuckling at North’s “puffed-out chest and his lachrymose style, his awful martial ardor,” noting elsewhere that North “sure could be tough when it came to scaring some uninformed congressman before the cameras. But leave him alone with a gun-running middleman for hostage takers and he was more than a patsy and somewhat more than eager to please.” That’s the problem with North: unless you willingly cut him every bit of moral and legal slack, overlooking his blatant lies and ham-fisted attempts at subterfuge, he comes across as a badass only in the minds of the people who already want him to be. The whole messy affair showed North to be the kind of guy who rushes in to take an elaborate trick shot that nobody particularly wants him to make and altogether misses the mark, maiming bystanders and hitting himself in the foot, only to declare that at least he tried his best and had nothing but good intentions, and isn’t that all that really matters? Even Nancy Reagan, not necessarily known as a harsh judge of character, once admitted that “Ollie North has a great deal of trouble separating fact from fantasy.”

And yet Ollie became something of a folk hero virtually overnight. Thousands of telegrams flooded in as people across the country rallied to his defense. Reagan even called him a hero after firing him. His own lawyer brazenly insisted that questioning North was a personal attack and cited the pile of telegrams sent in support of him as evidence that “the American people have spoken.” Instead of being seen as a boorish opportunist who screwed up royally and caused other people to pay the price for it (North and plenty of his collaborators were indicted and convicted, and one later attempted suicide), Ollie became the All-American Ubermensch. Radio stations blared songs like “Ollie B. Good.” A restaurant named a sandwich after him featuring “red blooded American beef” on “a hero roll” with “a little bologna.”

The adulation persisted despite evidence that showed North had skimmed some of those secret payments from Iran off the top for himself, which he put toward a $15,000 security system for his house, a friend’s wedding present, and a trust for his kids’ college fund. A jury found him guilty on three counts in May of 1989: obstructing Congress, taking an illegal gratuity (the security system), and destruction of government documents (the file shredding). A federal judge gave him a three-year suspended sentence and a $150,000 fine. But two of the charges were vacated and the third was reversed by an appeals court in 1990 on grounds that some evidence may have been out of bounds because North had been given immunity to testify before Congress. The Iran-Contra special prosecutor dropped the charges against North in 1991, and in the following year, President George H.W. Bush granted pardons to six key actors who had been convicted in the investigation.

An Imperfect Candidate

In the mid-eighties, Sean Hannity was just an ordinary contractor in Santa Barbara, California, who liked to call up radio talk shows to bloviate about the news. But when the Iran-Contra hearings were beamed to the boob tube, young Hannity found himself skipping work to spend hours taping and rewatching them. He later claimed the experience prompted his career change. I remember seeing an impeccably uniformed North hosting War Stories on Fox News all throughout the aughts about the glory days of ’Nam, and appearing on Hannity’s show, squinting stoically at the camera and trying to look humble while being lavished with praise about what a Great American he was. North had become another one of the all-purpose action figures in the culture wars.

It seemed like a good bet that North would have been able to bottle his signature magic when he ran for Senate in Virginia in 1994. What went wrong? The answers are found in the underseen verité-style documentary A Perfect Candidate—considered by some to be one of the most brutally honest behind-the-scenes portrayals of modern political campaigning. Co-directed by R.J. Cutler (who also co-produced the Clinton-era The War Room), the documentary shows the smoke-filled back rooms where North’s campaign managers and speechwriters hash out Ollie’s next speech. The title is meant to be ironic, but as the cameramen wind their way through the perpetual grind of the campaign trail, interviewing North supporters running the gamut from garden variety weekend warriors to the truly grotesque, it becomes increasingly clear that not only are too few people in on the ridiculousness of North’s candidacy, but for many there’s no joke in it at all.

Political documentaries sometimes bring rose-colored glasses to their subjects, but not this one. North doesn’t speak directly to the camera, but we see him ambling around and shaking hands with giddy voters, one of whom, juggling a very small child and a shotgun, honks about shooting “clay pigeons and Democrats.” Naturally, North’s straight talk is carefully molded to appear as authentic as possible, and of course that authenticity means that he keeps reciting the usual nineties-era culture war pablum about family values, guns, urban predators, and Big Government. One of his handlers approvingly remarks that North stands for “the victory of anger in politics,” and in one speech given in a church, North subtly but audaciously relates his years of investigation and conviction with the trials and tribulations of You Know Who.

The film’s real drama comes from watching his campaign staff scramble to keep North’s candidacy on track and on message, especially his portly, chain-smoking campaign manager Mark Goodin. North’s handlers are perfectly aware of the candidate’s perfidies, but they think his family man image and charisma will ultimately see him through. As Goodin puts it, “Ollie is Elvis.” One person remarks that North can look at you for fifteen seconds and make you feel like you’re the only one that matters to him. But other than that, he doesn’t exactly bring much to the table. In one scene, North gets tossed some softball questions while on the campaign bus, and as he rattles off the usual stuff about courage and fortitude, Goodin sits behind him, just out of reach of the cameras, eating a burger and drinking a beer while rolling his eyes and smiling at how easy it all is.

North’s opponent is a stuffed-shirt establishment centrist named Chuck Robb who has some salacious scandals of his own involving a former Miss Virginia-cum-Playmate and allegedly attending some druggy parties in Virginia Beach. Robb is super cringey on the campaign trail, awkwardly seeking random hands to shake and inflicting painful small talk on supermarket shoppers. When asked by a reporter for his stance about a union dispute, Robb repeats his canned response which neither confirms nor denies his support for unions. (“What is your position on striker replacement?” he’s asked. “It has not changed. My basic position on the underlying issues has not changed.”) He often sounds like a malfunctioning robot.

A restaurant named a sandwich after Oliver North featuring “red blooded American beef” on “a hero roll” with “a little bologna.”

“Character” keeps coming up as a key issue in the race, and North’s communications director accurately remarks that people seem to like Oliver North not in spite of Iran-Contra but because of it. A scene featuring a bunch of chanting college boys with the letters of North’s nickname painted on their bare chests is probably the most disturbing example of how ardent this kind of electioneering can get, and the level of nuanced thinking at work. Robb’s female campaign manager certainly looks a little spooked to be standing in front of the sign-waving mob.

In a rueful moment of reflection, Goodin presciently tells the camera that the media are like hungry lions, needing to be fed their daily slab of entertainment.

It’s not pretty, but getting people elected unfortunately has a lot to do with dividing. . . . That is different from what it takes to govern because governing is all about finding consensus on difficult issues and bringing people together, people who don’t always agree, under some sense of common purpose. And we are obsessed with getting people elected, and we are obsessed with the show. And so are you, or you wouldn’t be here. So we provide daily entertainment; what we are not providing is serious solutions to what’s going on in the country. Not us, not Chuck, not Clinton, not Bush, not anybody.

He’s right, of course, but the irony is that Donald Trump, the Great Divider, is probably using that very method right this minute at a campaign rally, putting exclamation points at the end of every word and getting a huge cheer from the crowd. It’s one thing to decry politics as entertainment and another to embrace them as one and the same.

Goodin initially feels validated for trying to maintain a reasonably positive message, but he and his buddies don’t mind sneaking a peek at Chuck Robb’s alleged former lover’s Playboy spread. As the tide begins to turn against him, North clumsily endorses the flying of a Confederate flag over a museum, an uncannily foreshadowing of Trumpist rhetoric around the flag. When local black churches wade into the controversy and President Clinton comes down to speechify about “turning the lights on in the state of Virginia,” the panic starts to set in. Ultimately, it’s enough to rally the Democratic vote and Robb wins by a few percentage points—but with a considerable margin over North on the question of character. North’s concession speech is almost exactly the same as the one that was planned for victory, featuring a homily from some probably fictional nice old lady from a small town in Virginia. A defeated Goodin sulks away, swearing that the next time around he’ll forgo all the family values stuff and “cut the guy’s balls off.” The culture war giveth and the culture war taketh away.

The Liar Also Rises

In May of 2018, a septuagenarian North made news when he staged a comeback by becoming president of the NRA, his central qualification apparently being that he had been on television for a long time. It certainly wasn’t due to his eloquence, wit, or legislative skills. At the time, entrenched NRA chief Wayne LaPierre hailed him as “a legendary warrior for American freedom” and “a gifted communicator and skilled leader,” which is barely a step up from praising his precious bodily fluids. The timing of the announcement was especially crass, coming only a few months after one of the deadliest shootings in American history at a high school in Parkland, Florida. The move to put Oliver North at the head of the NRA sure seemed more like a transparently desperate appeal to old-fashioned culture war symbolism than any substantial response to gun violence.

With a tin-earned ignorance of the national mood, North claimed that he liked “the idea of a good fight” and lamented “personal, legal, financial, and digital” attacks on the NRA “over the course of the past two or three months.” He also made the head-scratching accusation that people in the media were “using the First Amendment to attack everyone else’s Second Amendment.” The goal was to increase NRA membership by a million members—which was ultimately not to be, since Ollie foolishly fell back into the same funny-with-the-money behavior that got him into some world-historical trouble back when he actually had some real influence.

Evidently old habits die hard. North’s tenure as president didn’t even last a year. In April of 2019, North’s presidency came under fierce internal legal scrutiny. Given how controversial its reliably deranged positions are, the NRA aims to avoid dissension within its ranks and abstains from airing its dirty laundry whenever possible. But North’s cash grab caused plenty of internal strife that was a huge embarrassment once the news became public. According to a civil complaint entered in Virginia state court, North was double-dipping the whole time, collecting his presidential salary while also under contract with Ackerman McQueen, the NRA’s longstanding advertising firm that ran the short-lived NRATV video network.

North’s dismally venal public record tipped us off in the 1980s that show business and image and unyielding Republican militancy were triumphing over respect for the law.

The NRA spent lots of money on NRATV at Ackerman McQueen’s insistence, which was supposed to boost ratings, membership, and outside donations from its association with North. Needless to say, it didn’t work. Once again, North was happy to dream big while playing with big piles of money, but he couldn’t deliver the goods. He failed to produce twelve feature-length episodes of the series American Heroes, submitting only three, with the last being about eleven minutes long. The NRA was none too pleased about being used as North’s personal rainmaker. But wily old Ollie figured he’d have an ace up his sleeve, which, like every other trick he’s tried over the years, promptly blew up in his face.

According to an NRA memorandum published by the Wall Street Journal, LaPierre claimed that a red-handed North subsequently tried to blackmail him over his own lavish personal spending using the NRA’s money. LaPierre, never one to shy away from insensitive metaphors, wailed that this was “the most painful period of my life” and that he’d suffered “weekly, weekly, weekly, like this, waterboarding of me.” The fact that all of this surreptitious backstabbing ended up going public and humiliating everyone involved, as well as causing North to resign his presidency and putting the NRA on the financial ropes, doesn’t do much to bolster North’s brusque defense of his treatment of LaPierre in a radio interview: “If you’re not going to do things right, don’t hire a Marine.”

In the end, North’s flop-fest of a career is less noteworthy than the image that sustained it. Part of the fun of supporting Ollie North, as with many a present-day GOP icon, lies in how self-justifying it all is. If one decides that he’s really just a misunderstood hero, a tough guy with chutzpah whose only sin was in getting a little too big for his britches, then there’s no need to justify it any further. It says more about who you think you are and who you want to be than about who North really is. Anyone who would try to point out his indifference to the law, his brash opportunism and sundry screwups, is already missing the point. It’s already beyond debate. People support Ollie North because they want to identify with him, to bask in the fool’s gold glow of his badass reputation. Some people see a cowboy instead of a doofus, tenacity instead of sheer egotism. North’s dismally venal public record tipped us off in the 1980s that show business and image and unyielding Republican militancy were triumphing over respect for the law. The Iran-Contra scandal was swept away, the criminals pardoned. None went on to a brighter career of rising mediocrity than Oliver North.