An American Fairy Tale

ESSAY

July 20 1987

An American Fairy Tale

ESSAY

July 20 1987

An American Fairy Tale

COVER

ESSAY

Lewis Lapham

Americans everywhere gazed in fascination at their television screens last week as the key player in the Iran-contra affair told his story publicly for the first time since the scandal broke seven months ago. Lewis Lapham, Editor of Harper’s magazine, was in Washington when Maclean’s assigned this personal essay:

For four days last week Lt.-Col. Oliver North allowed the American public to believe in any and all of its best-beloved fairy tales. As deftly as a mime changing hats and facial expressions, the colonel was by turns righteous, sweet, angry, humble, indignant, cocky, innocent, respectful, sly and cute. The truth of what he was saying didn’t matter as much as the timbre of his voice and the tears in his eyes. The audience could choose to see in his performance whatever it wished to see, and as early as Wednesday afternoon the opinion polls announced the birth of a star.

On Thursday morning crowds gathered on Capitol Hill as early as 5 a.m., waiting patiently for a seat in the congressional theatre; countless citizens telephoned the White House to say they admired the colonel because he was “so American,” or because he was “the boy next door,” or because he so bravely defended the country against its legion of enemies; the Washington Magazine described the colonel as the “the last cavalier,” and the newspaper television critics ransacked the archive of old movies in their search for the sublime cliché. The Wash-

ington Post spoke of “the little colonel who could,” and USA Today rounded up witnesses to say that Colonel North reminded them of John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Clint Eastwood.

The tide of emotion running so strongly in the colonel’s favor impressed the committee investigating the colonel’s actions. Wary of the colonel’s newly minted celebrity, and mindful of the American axiom that celebrity in sufficient magnitude transmutes even the basest crimes into sympathy and gold, the politicians refrained from asking rude questions. Joined with the media’s delight in the colonel’s ability to wear the multiple faces of the American dream, the committee’s cowardice allowed the colonel to display the full range of his talent for mawkish sentiment. He delivered little lectures on patriotism and offered homilies (suitable for framing on a Hallmark card) about the meaning of life, love, liberty and the Constitution.

Myth: Because nobody wished to disturb the forces of elemental myth playing around the edges of the colonel’s uniform, nobody insisted on too close an examination of the colonel’s testimony. The discrepancies were many and blatant, but two lines of contradictions should suggest the willing suspensions of disbelief.

1. Throughout the hearing the colonel presented himself as the humble patriot who never once disobeyed an order or did anything un-American. And yet, by his own repeated and contemptuous admission, he ignored the nation’s laws whenever those laws stood in the way of what he regarded as a higher cause. In the interests of the national security state, he lied to the Congress as

well as to American cabinet officials and foreign intelligence agents; he wrote false chronologies and destroyed documents in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of his imagined enemies in the justice department. Contrary to every impulse ingrained in the definition of what it means to be American, the colonel portrayed himself as the faithful servant of a President whom he endowed with the powers of an oriental despot. 2. Presenting himself as a “can-do” sort of guy, the colonel said that he was proud of his success in the moral underworld. So loud was his selfpraise that an inattentive member of the audience might have thought his zeal had resulted in triumph. But most of his efforts resulted in failure, betrayal and death. During his tenure at the National Security Council the American government lost more hostages than it rescued. The inane and poorly executed policies that Colonel North advanced in Nicaragua and Iran weakened the cause of the contras and fouled the reputation of the Reagan administration—effects precisely opposite to those that the colonel intended.

So much of the colonel’s story made so little sense that it wasn’t until the evening of the third day of his testimony-while watching Dan Aykroyd’s comic variation of Dragnet in the company of several schoolchildren who never heard of Fawn Hall or Manucher Ghorbanifar— that I finally understood the operative dynamic at play in the wilderness of the colonel’s mind. Some aspects of his confession had been easy enough to grasp. I could understand the colonel and his friends wanting to do brave and heroic deeds in distant lands across the sea; I could understand their bombast, their incompetence,

even their belief in the magical properties of secret passwords. What troubled me was the lack of plausible character and the absence of coherent motive. How in God’s name did they form their ideas? In what sort of world did they imagine themselves resident? Goat: The movie offered the beginning of an answer. About 20 minutes into the story the principal villain entered the camera shot wearing the heavy mask of a horned goat, and even before he pushed the virgin in the pit with the giant snake, I knew I

was looking at the geopolitics of Lt.-Col. Oliver North. Cast as clownish policemen, Aykroyd and his partner meet the villain in the goat’s mask when they blunder into an orgiastic crowd scene in the Hollywood hills. The villain is the high priest of a pagan cult plotting to seize the municipal government of Los Angeles. The few thousand devotees assembled for the evening’s ritual of human sacrifice, all of them wearing goatskins on their legs, dance frenzied in the light of the ribald moon.

The movie continues along similar lines for another 90 minutes, no more or less absurd in its plot devices than most of the movies that come and go every summer—as quickly as moths or mayflies. It was intended for a target audience of citizens between the ages of 8 and 14 and took place in the realm of pagan superstition.

Thugs: So also did the geopolitics of Colonel North and his merry band of thugs and mercenaries. They conducted their operations in the realm of myth and fairy tale, at one with the Cyclops and the centaur and the pagan gods of river and forest. Utterly lacking a sense of historical time, their minds wandering in a magical present, they sought to shape the world by the shaking of feathered rattles. Their passwords were meant as spells and incantations, their gifts of cake and money as votive offerings, their map co-ordinates as runes marking the approaches not to Nicaragua or Iran but to the land of the trolls.

Given a society in which the historical memory no longer exists and 50 per cent of the population thinks that the President has the right to declare a law unconstitutional, the big media, especially television, come to perform the functions of primitive ritual. Archetypal figures appear in the enchanted theatres of the newsweightless, without antecedents, dissolving as suddenly as apparitions in the mirror of a dream. For a few days or a few months, occasionally for a period of years, they give shape to the longing of the moment, and between Tuesday and Friday of last week it was the persona of Colonel North, inflated to the size of a float at the Rose Bowl parade, that comforted the American public with the promise of a world as simple as Star Wars and white picket fences. He offered proof and living witness to a

world in which America remained safe from its enemies, in which nothing had changed since the glorious victory of Iwo Jima, in which it was as easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys as it was to read the program at a Little League baseball game. Like President Reagan in the heyday of his popularity, Colonel North gave his voice and expression to the wish to make time stand still. Defying the Congress, he defied the corruption of death and change and presented himself as the immortal boy in the heroic green uniform of Peter Pan