North Exposure

Article excerpt

Senate candidate Oliver North runs hot on populism and cold on character.

WHEN RETIRED MArine Lt. Col. Oliver North announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Virginia on January 26, he didn't hold a press conference in Richmond or a political rally in Roanoke or a fundraiser in Fairfax. He went on Larry King Live. "The professional politicians, the insiders, that live in this city are non-responsive to the very real problems that exist out there," North told King and millions of viewers across the country (few of whom will ever have a chance to vote for him). "Quite frankly, I would not be doing this...if I had not been so encouraged by so many people who asked me to do it."

North didn't mention this, but many of those encouraging him to run (and funding his campaign) live in places like Phoenix, San Diego, and Seattle. His national fund-raising letters are simultaneously maudlin and caustic, punching the appropriate hot buttons. A recent missive refers to his 22 years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps, including four years at the National Security Council: "During that time I was concerned with protecting America overseas. Now I would like to volunteer to protect and defend America from those who would try to undermine America from WITHIN."

Some people eat this stuff up. North is "a God-fearing man," contributor Michael Scott of Corpus Christi, Texas, told The Washington Times. "He realizes that government is out of control and in trouble." Percy Harris, 71, of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, told the Times that "anyone who can set those dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrats on their heads during that long Iran-Contra mess, and make them look silly, we need very badly." On the strength of numerous small contributions (averaging $40) from people like Scott and Harris, North had already taken in over $1.5 million by early February.

With instant celebrity status, access to the national media, and a large data base of people across the country from whom to solicit support, North is vying

for more than just a chance to combat Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb in the fall campaign. "North won't just be Virginia's senator, he'll be the senator for an entire branch of conservatives," says Robert Holsworth, chairman of the political science department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. North is poised to inherit the mantle of stalwart conservatism currently owned by another Southern politician skilled at national organizing and fund raising. "North is the new Jesse Helms," Holsworth proclaims. Of course, North Carolina's Helms--love him or loathe him--is known for telling the truth. That's not exactly North's claim to fame.

VIRGINIANS AREN'T TOO excited about their choices for Senate this year. The two likely nominees are carrying heavy baggage. North has Iran-Contra and Robb has Miss Virginia, drug parties, and staff members skilled at wiretapping. Both score high negatives in state public-opinion polls. Still, Republicans don't seem as intent on winning Robb's seat as one might have expected. While Republican Sen. John Warner has been critical of North, no high-profile party leaders stepped up to the plate to contest the nomination. Most probably thought North was unbeatable and didn't want to make an enemy for life.

That leaves the unenviable task of challenging North's national political ascendancy to an unlikely first-time politician: Jim Miller, former head of Ronald Reagan's Office of Management and Budget. Miller has some national firepower of his own. Several prominent alumni of the Reagan administration, such as former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Attorney General Ed Meese, have endorsed Miller and attacked North's credibility and bona fides. And on February 17, 14 high-ranking military retirees held a press conference in Arlington to denounce North as lacking the character and integrity to serve as senator. "We can do better than Oliver North," said retired Marine Maj. …