Seven months have elapsed since Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, 43, was fired from his National Security Council job, and the downtime hasn’t treated him kindly. The circles under his intense blue eyes have grown darker and his justifiably guarded smile ever more pinched. These days North works a desk job at Marine headquarters in Arlington, Va. and in his off-hours sticks close to home. He has been doing yard work with his son, helping one daughter prepare for a horse show, encouraging another to cope with cast and crutches left over from a trampoline accident. His strength, said wife Betsy, comes from the Thursday evening prayer groups that North, a born-again Christian, hosts in their home.
But if North is pleased to have more time with Betsy and their four children after five years of late nights and unpredictable travel as the Reagan Administration’s point man without portfolio, this domestic interlude has not been tranquil. The press has established a beachhead at the end of the driveway. Because he’s been threatened by some Arab extremists, a handful of gun-toting Naval intelligence agents follow him everywhere, even to church on Sunday. And North has been logging grueling hours with his lawyer as he prepares for his long-awaited public testimony on the Irangate scandal.
If all goes as planned, North will be sworn in this week by the joint congressional committees investigating covert efforts to swap arms to Iran for hostages and divert the profits to Nicaraguan rebels. Though granted limited immunity from prosecution, he could still end up in jail for crimes ranging from conspiracy to obstruction of justice. He could also set off a political fire storm if he confirms what most witnesses have only surmised: that Ronald Reagan knew or approved of such illegal activities.
“To say that he is anxious to go in front of the American people is an understatement,” says fellow Marine Charles Krulak, who describes North, a close friend, as eager to set the record straight. Testimony to date—even from such staunchly loyal friends as Fawn Hall, his secretary at the NSC—has not reflected well on North’s character. He has been depicted as a falsifier of documents and shredder of papers, an amateurish bungler who apparently couldn’t keep Swiss bank-account numbers straight, even a small-time chiseler who helped himself to a little cash for groceries and snow tires.
Those shabby revelations, placed against the many glowing reports of North’s valor in battle and composure in the crisis room, have only compounded the question, “Who is Oliver North?” That question is not likely to be answered definitively this week, since the enigma of North’s conduct is lifelong; the record of his remarkable achievements has been tarnished by falsehood and braggadocio, and his obvious idealism has been tainted by egotism. “He’s the wrong kind of Marine,” says one former Leatherneck. “He invented Rambo before the movie was made.”
Oliver Laurence North was born in San Antonio and grew up in the Upstate New York village of Philmont. The eldest of four children, he was called “Larry” to distinguish him from his father, Oliver Clay North. That Oliver, who graduated from the U of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and went into the family wool business after serving as a decorated lieutenant colonel in Patton’s Third Army, was a stern disciplinarian in the Great Santini mold. His wife, Ann, who sometimes worked as a substitute teacher, was a devout Catholic. Little Larry was their dream child: boy scout, altar boy, track team member, a living catalog of wholesome accomplishment. He was never a gifted student or athlete, but he worked hard—harder than anyone else—a pattern he established early and never abandoned. His high school classmates voted him both “nicest looking” and “most courteous.” Reminded of that today, his mother says fervently, “He was, he was.”
North enrolled at the State University of New York at Brockport, where he studied English and education (he would later describe his course as pre-med) while training with the Marine reserves. Fortuitously, a Brockport classmate’s father was the soccer coach at the Naval academy at Annapolis, and with his help North transferred there after his sophomore year, starting over as a plebe. He had to begin again the following year because a bad car accident kept him out of school for months.
Years later Academy classmate Richard Petrino would remember North as “a little wild, a gung-ho patriot.” He recalled finding North sneaking through darkened hallways one night to steal his medical records because he feared they might keep him out of the Marines. When other midshipmen took summer vacations, North went to Army parachute school. He also took up boxing and scored a now-legendary upset in the brigade championships against James Webb, later a distinguished novelist and Vietnam veteran, who has served since April as Secretary of the Navy. Webb was more skilled in the ring, but the scrappy North eked out a win on points—and then used the fight film to prove his fitness to the Marines.
After graduation in 1968 Ollie—as he was now known—barely had time to complete field training and to propose to and marry steady sweetheart Frances Elizabeth (Betsy) Stuart of Falls Church, Va. before he was off to Vietnam. He did only one tour—though he would later hint at several—but came home with a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. Even then North was sometimes more concerned with ends than means. Ordered to capture a prisoner for interrogation, he took his night patrol into the forbidden DMZ and hauled one back. Mission accomplished, he cautioned his men, “Don’t write home about this one.”
By all accounts North was a natural leader who returned his men’s loyalty in kind. He was already back in the States when he learned that Lance Cpl. Randy Herrod, whom North credited with once saving his life, faced murder charges for allegedly taking part in a massacre of civilians. On his own initiative North flew back to Vietnam to appear as Herrod’s star character witness and help bring about his acquittal.
For North, the U.S. defeat in Vietnam was a trauma he never wanted to see repeated. He returned to teach at the Marine base in Quantico, Va. and was then shipped out again to Okinawa as a trainer. It was when he returned from that posting that rumors began to circulate about his emotional state and his marriage. According to one story, never substantiated, North suffered a nervous breakdown and was found running around naked carrying a pistol. Marine records show only that he spent 22 days at the Bethesda Naval Hospital beginning in December 1974, then returned to full duty. He held various desk and training jobs until 1980, when he was admitted to the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. There he caught the eye of soon-to-be Navy Secretary John Lehman, who later recommended him to Richard Allen, then National Security adviser.
North first came to the NSC offices as a factotum, setting up charts and carrying bags for the brass. But his can-do attitude and workaholic dedication quickly impressed his White House superiors. Gradually he was given more responsibility and, with it, more power. As NSC deputy director for political and military affairs, he styled himself the Reagan Administration’s covert operations specialist and took on responsibility both for combating terrorism and for supporting anti-communist insurgencies. He played a key role in planning the invasion of Grenada, mining Nicaraguan harbors and bombing Libya. His stock among Reaganites soared after he orchestrated a midflight intercept of the airplane carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers from Egypt.
Many congressional probers find it hard to believe that North, who came to be described sardonically in Washington as the “the world’s highest-ranking lieutenant colonel,” was left to operate entirely without supervision. Yet it seems clear that the youthful Marine was in very high favor. Former NSC head Robert McFarlane spoke of him almost as a son, and the late CIA Director William Casey valued his services. And North wasn’t above dropping broad hints that he had direct access to the Oval Office, though that has since been denied in some quarters. Still, the President saw fit to praise North as “a national hero,” even as he was firing him last November.
Others seemed less enchanted with North and his predilection for out-of-channels intrigue. Secretary of State George Shultz, for one, was suspicious of North. Once, after North made unauthorized contact with the Israeli army, he reportedly grabbed the young aide by the arm and said, “Don’t you ever dare to get involved in diplomatic matters again.” By June 1986, even McFarlane was sufficiently alarmed about North’s stability to note in a memo to his successor, John Poindexter, “In Ollie’s interest, I would get him transferred or sent to Bethesda for disability review.”
Now, in light of recent testimony, even some congressional investigators most sympathetic to North, such as Utah’s Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, talk of their disappointment with him. They listened with dismay as Iranian-born businessman Albert Hakim recounted how he’d set up secret bank accounts for the North children’s educations and a special $2 million reserve fund for North and retired Major General Richard Secord. They sat with long faces as former CIA electronics specialist Glenn Robinette described the expensive home security system that North accepted from Secord—paid for out of the same bank account that received profits from the arms sale to Iran. None of this could easily be reconciled with the carefully nurtured image of North as a selfless patriot.
Questions about such indiscretions could be answered during North’s public testimony, but other, murkier questions of character will probably remain. Increasingly these days, North, a born-again Christian since the late ’70s, looks for answers in Scripture. One of North’s favorite passages is Matt. 5:10: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Besieged, Oliver North seems to believe that. Those who have studied his colorful and contradictory career don’t know what to believe.
—Written by Dan Chu, reported by Maria Wilhelm