By Stefan Kanfer
October 04, 1989 12:00 PM

The Marine Corps is looking for a few good men. One of them has to replace Lt. Col. Oliver North, the embodiment of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase, “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.”

From the beginning, two colonels were in evidence: Magnetic North and True North. The first seemed to materialize from a half-time recruiting spot. He faced Senate investigators with a chest full of combat medals, a righteous crack in his voice and an implacable loyalty to family and flag. Viewers were beguiled by the crinkled smile, the puppy-dog eyes and the flush of wounded pride. In a telegram landslide, he won the opening skirmish in the battle of the televised hearings.

But there was another Ollie. He was the one who, along with his drop-dead gorgeous secretary, Fawn Hall, shredded evidence about clandestine arms agreements with the Iranians and secret shipments to the Nicaraguan contras; who exaggerated his access to the President; and who was ultimately convicted of misusing funds and misleading Congress (“We all had to weigh, in the balance,” he maintained, “the difference between lives and lies”). Both Ollies were expressions, or distortions, of the same impulse: to get the country, in the President’s heart-tugging phrase, “standing tall again.” Which is why, despite his fine of $150,000 and his sentence of 1,200 hours of community service, North can still attract an enthusiastic following and a substantial fee merely by appearing behind a lectern.

His story is an ’80s epic of heat-seeking ambition, of striding patriotism turned into strident jingoism. But it is an epic, and North may be telling it well into the next century, trying to explain the ironies of a decade that made him a cynosure one morning, a felon the next. It is up to history to decide if Ollie was a decent, well-meaning figure, taking the fall for lesser men in bigger jobs. Or if his detractors are right when they point out that in Lt. Col. Oliver North’s attempt to block communism in Central America, he subscribed to the belief that “we must be ready to employ trickery, deceit, lawbreaking, withholding and concealing truth.” Talk about irony. Those words were written almost a century ago by another zealous patriot. He called himself V.I. Lenin.