Fascism with a human face, in this case the visage of Lieut. Col. Oliver North, disturbed more than the left political community, which has been correctly proclaiming a Reagan putsch for years. As President Reagan ages in the attic, the youthful colonel spoke up as Reagan écorché, self-satisfied in his contempt for Congress, for law, for the Constitution. If the efficient procedures of the soap opera could be applied, Reagan would now be written out of the script and Ollie brought in as the new lead, as good an actor at half the age. But the scriptwriters are already in Iowa, and Olliemania will have the staying power of the hula hoop.
A friend of mine, active in the New Left and the antiwar movement at the end of the 1960s, remarked to me that North reminded him of himself twenty years ago: ebullient, brimful of confidence as the exponent of history’s true mission, histrionically effective in playing to the gallery to the discomfort of vested authority. The Iran/contra hearings have, in a sense, been the right’s echo of the Chicago conspiracy trial. In both cases those in the dock or at the witness table had the political certitude to face down their inquisitors and seize control of the proceedings. The Chicago trial concluded radicalism’s season as the pacemaker of political discourse, and the Iran/contra inquiry is a similar swan song for the right.
This is not to insinuate that Reaganites are the moral equivalents of radicals. The Chicago Eight were trying to stop the kind of war Colonel North was trying to start, and they were the sort of people he had in mind when he collaborated in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s secret contingency plan to suspend the Constitution and appoint military commanders to run state and local governments under martial law during a national crisis, understood to include domestic opposition to a military invasion abroad. It is still unclear whether Reagan ever signed an executive order consummating North’s vision. Those plans for martial law may be in the files now, waiting to become operational. When the excellent Representative Jack Brooks tried to question North about the secret contingency plan, Senator Daniel Inouye, sheeplike, cut him off.
North’s testimony may mark the end of an era, but that does not mean the Democrats have anything lined up by way of uplifting replacement. The homilies of David Boren of Oklahoma, Lee Hamilton of Indiana and the others were heavy with eclogues to “bipartisanship.” Hamilton, the man who in 1985 found no reason to suspect North of any circumvention of the Boland amendment, insisted virtuously, “During my six years on the Intelligence Committee, over 90 percent of the covert actions that were recommended to us by the President were supported and approved.”
Small wonder that after listening appreciatively to this underdogged mush, the White House announced it would increase the amount of aid for the contras that it had been planning to seek from Congress. As we move toward the vote on contra aid, we may expect the traditional barrage of propaganda about Sandinista abuse of human rights and military triumphs in the field. Indeed, on July 17, The New York Times ran a story from its military correspondent Bernard Trainor, headed “Nicaraguan Rebels Say They Won Biggest Victory Over Sandinistas.” In The Times’s first edition Trainor merely relayed the claim of contra spokesman Bosco Matamoros that the Sandinista military garrison at San Jose de Bocay had been overrun. Trainor says that Matamoros called him up from Honduras announcing that he had some good news, as relayed to him at midday from the contra unit in the field. In time for the second edition Trainor got the State Department to agree that there had been heavy fighting in the area, but no confirmation from Nicaragua of anything resembling Matamoros’s claim.