by Ben Bradlee Jr.
Who can forget him standing there before the Iran-contra congressional committee in that Marine Corps uniform he wore as if he expected to be bronzed, looking so brave and so vulnerable, with the little shock of hair turning gray, a blush of winter against that boyish face? Who can forget the heartbreaking crack in his voice—it might have been the Liberty Bell pealing when he spoke—as he made his pledges of allegiance over and over, until finally it began to sound sappy even to the proudest patriot. And then we woke up feeling that we had committed some embarrassing indiscretion. As Bradlee (son of the Washington Post executive editor and a political correspondent for the Boston Globe) brings out in great if unresolved detail, all of Ollie’s winning ways could not make boyish pranks out of his dangerous, harebrained schemes. The Kiplingesque Ollie, our own Kim, had shredded documents, lied to Congress, concocted a plot (it was recently revealed) to assassinate Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and short-circuited the democratic process. He enriched himself—even as he sang with indignation about his purity. And President Ronald Reagan called him a hero and hinted that North should be pardoned if convicted for exceeding his authority. Sometimes the gap-toothed charm backfired: “Hi, I’m Ollie North—the jarhead Marine around here,” he once said, according to Bradlee, when introducing himself to a White House staff member who groaned and thought, “Christ, who’s this chump?” North was a small-town kid (Philmont, N.Y.) who grew up in an emotionally parched home where crossed swords over the mantle represented passion. He was an all-American boy, according to some. He was an opportunist, according to others. North lied and postured, but he was a hero in Vietnam and, some say, a hero in Grenada, the Middle East and Central America. The testimony Bradlee presents in over 500 pages is always mixed and, piled side by side in stammering profusion, it leads to one long equivocation. Carrying fairness to extremes, Bradlee begs the author’s obligation: to judge, to synthesize, to make comprehensible why it was that last summer we were all such pushovers for a glib line from a good-looking guy in a crisp uniform. (Fine, $21.95)