December 28, 1987 12:00 PM

In the glare of the TV lights, he said he had come to tell “the good, the bad and the ugly”—and Clint Eastwood, whose movie that was, couldn’t have played the role any better. No narrowed eyes and flinty monotone for Ollie. He lectured, he preached, he admonished, he joked. His blue eyes sparkled and his voice cracked with conviction.

One of the Marines who served under Oliver North in Vietnam said of the man, “He had a philosophy that the best way to survive was to minimize your exposure to hostile fire, and the best way to do that was to assault the enemy.” When North, since risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel, faced his congressional inquisitors at the Iran-contra hearings last July, he saw the enemy and let them have it. No, he was not sorry for deceiving Congress about his role in tunneling cash from the Iran arms sales to the Nicaraguan contras. And no, he was not going to let Congress heap all the blame on the executive branch—not when Congress, “fickle” and “vacillating,” had forced the Administration to aid the contras any way it could.

Until the bemedaled Marine raised his right hand, the hearings had been a snooze for the most part. Then, quick as you can say telegenic, the shadowy North was replaced by an irresistible new character: Ollie. It was instant cultural theater, as the All-American Boy with a gap-toothed grin worthy of Huck Finn beat long-haired House Chief Counsel John Nields at his own pugnacious game.

It was Ollie-oop and instant coast-to-coast stardom. Then, as the nation began to think twice, infatuation gave way to misgivings. Was North really the “national hero” President Reagan had proclaimed him to be? If someone thumbs his nose at senators and congressmen, what is he saying about the institution and the people they serve? Doesn’t a national hero have to perform a service that brings honor and distinction to his nation?

Ollie was tough, sure, patriotic, inexhaustible, a doer rather than a thinker—a type Americans generally admire. He was also a clever self-dramatizer and, unexpectedly, a master of persuasion, yet in the end he did not seem so formidable. In recent months, as special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s criminal investigation has moved inexorably forward, with the likelihood that North will be indicted, Ollie has drawn back into the narrow orbit of his family, his church and a desk job at Marine Corps Headquarters. Still, friends report the devil-may-care Ollie grin is unchanged. It may endure as a symbol of the idealism, hubris and recklessness that mingled to produce the political scandal of the decade.

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