Devotion to fair play is among the most charming of America’s character traits. Having slipped the noose of superpower domination a mere two centuries ago, we remain populists at heart—ever-swayed by the struggle of the meek against the mighty, the humble against the overstuffed, the individual against the autocrat.
Why are the New York Yankees so widely and ardently despised? Not because they attend to business in the nation’s largest and most exalted city, nor because they play any dirtier a game than ensembles from Detroit, St. Louis or San Diego, nor even because they are, often enough, insufferably good at what they do. No, America hates the New York Yankees because they are uppity, imperious, distant, wealthy and in the employ of George Steinbrenner, who has not learned a lick from the old Beatles tune that declares money can’t buy you love, no-no-no, no.
Conversely, the New York Mets were America’s team for years and years until, impossibly, they became winners in 1969 and began subsequently to behave too much like the Steinbrenners. Now, of course, the United States is fed up with the Mets and their strong young pitching staff and their pouting personnel and their bad-boy reputation. Affection is easily gained in America but even more easily lost. Let the overindulgent, the self-important and the flimflammers of every stripe take heed.
Accordingly, it is useful to consider the matter of Oliver L. North, who, as a stouthearted lieutenant-colonel in the United States Marines, captured the imagination of his fellow citizens and, for a fleeting period, commanded their sympathy and undermined their good sense as well. It was that adorable Ollie who, sitting bolt erect before congressional inquisitors, explained that his view of American foreign policy goals simply did not coincide with those of the people’s duly elected representatives and that with other important, but likewise unelected, Reagan administration officials, he proceeded to make certain necessary adjustments.
Among those, of course, was the nowfamiliar overture to the Grand Inscrutable Mystic Khomeini of Tehran and, in turn, the clandestine financing of mercenaries hired by the White House for odd jobs in Central America. Yes, it was Ollie, all right, flying off to exotic places
hither and yon, dictating memo upon memo to the exquisite Fawn Hall, meeting with the shadowy individuals who had created a sort of secret junta that established diplomatic priorities with neither the advice nor consent of the U.S. Congress.
Time passes, an era ends, the nation awakens, albeit not with a start. These days, Oliver North is a man under indictment, accused by his government of conspiracy, theft and fraud. He has retired from the marines and consorts with Jerry Falwell, the bejowled preacher who, on television, pleads the indictee’s case, exhorts his hardpressed flock to donate spare cash to the cause and urges a presidential pardon. By calling a toll-free number, folks are able to place their names on petitions that will be forwarded to Ronald Reagan himself.
It is assumed in Washington that the President is already hankering to board
A pardon for Ollie North would not be a triumph of the little guy but another conquest for the sly, for the privileged
Jerry and Ollie’s Gospel Train. A softhearted fellow, the chief executive has hinted that he would like to spring the former marine and, moreover, indicated that he just doesn’t see that this stellar young man did anything wrong.
Even before the indictments of North and other administration aides were handed down, the President told a group of high-school students: “I just have to believe that they’re going to be found innocent because I don’t think they were guilty of any lawbreaking or any crime.” Regarding his former national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, who has been accused of withholding information from Congress, Reagan joked, “I’ve done that myself.”
Despite the President’s kind words, it remains unclear whether the American people will conveniently drift into an amnesiac state regarding the Irancontra scandal. Forgiving of frailty and ever-disposed toward the underdog, the citizens of the United States nonetheless are not ditzoid—as the college crowd might say. Yes, an individual can gain considerable favor by waving the flag and saluting before
the cameras and showing off a chest full of campaign ribbons but, sooner or later, the histrionics subside and the gravity of events registers on the collective subconscious.
A pardon for Ollie North would not be a triumph of the little guy but another conquest for the sly, for the privileged, for the fellows who belly their way to the front of the line and then smile at the poor saps bringing up the rear. Interceding at this point would put the President on the opposite side of the system of law and order he often extols and make his administration look sleazy in the process.
“Pretrial pardons would create a special odor of impropriety, since the President was so deeply involved in the case,” said Senator George Mitchell, the Maine Democrat who emerged as one of the most incisive members of the Iran-contra committee. Mitchell referred to the post-Watergate pardon of Richard Nixon by President Gerald Ford and warned that the public would be sorely aggrieved if Reagan pulled a similar stunt. “The granting of pardons would have the adverse effect of confirming the widespread belief that a dual standard of justice exists . . . one for the powerful, another for all other citizens,” Mitchell said.
At a news conference following the Toronto economic summit, Reagan was asked to express himself about the prospect of a pardon. Although he again stated his belief in the innocence of the Iran-contra defendants, Reagan said the legal process “has to go forward.” Still, he could not quite bring himself to rule out executive action. “So I have no intention of, of,” he faltered. “Now wait a minute, let me move back for some of our visitors.”
Meanwhile, a bribery and fraud scandal is perking at the defence department, the legal troubles of Attorney General Edwin Meese persist, and there are allegations regarding CIA financing for the drug-running Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega. Most likely, practical politics will make it impossible for the chief executive to pardon North or anyone else, although his instincts might dictate otherwise. Such is the state of affairs in Washington that if Ronald Reagan were to intercede for all the friends and helpers now in trouble, the President’s last six months in office could be the most exhausting of his tenure.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
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