The Making of a Candidate: How Oliver North Went from Vilifying Congress to Running for the Senate

By Kemper, Vicki | Common Cause Magazine, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

The Making of a Candidate: How Oliver North Went from Vilifying Congress to Running for the Senate


Kemper, Vicki, Common Cause Magazine


It looks like something right out of the democracy-in-action section of a civics textbook. On a Friday night in October at a suburban Washington hotel, some 250 eager college students have gathered to see one of their heroes, paying $10 each for the honor. Red, white and blue streamers hang from the ceiling, a huge American flag hugs a wall, and the handmade "College Republicans Ollie" poster attached to the podium adds a personal touch to the large, custom-crafted "Oliver North American Hero" banner.

"I've always wanted to see Ollie," enthuses a 21-year-old student from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "I can't wait to see the fireworks when he wins," pipes up his 19-year-old classmate, referring to North's campaign for the U.S. Senate - at the time legally organized but publicly undeclared.

"He's literally an American hero. He stood up for what he believed in," says a George Washington University sophomore who watched the Iran-Contra hearings as an enthralled 13-year-old. "He took responsibility for what he did, and that's the important thing - even if it was against the law. And that's not clear," the student adds. "He was acquitted on all charges. [Election to the Senate] will be his vindication."

When North finally enters the room and steps up to the podium, pandemonium breaks out. Chants of "Ollie Ollie Ollie" rock the room. The pep rally-like chanting and clapping and foot-stomping are repeated at regular intervals throughout North's speech, becoming particularly raucous whenever Ollie blasts the Democrats, questions Bill Clinton's manhood or makes even a passing comment about welfare. The students' response to North's exhortation to prayer, however, is noticeably subdued.

But it really doesn't matter what North says, or that his hair is all gray now, that the ramrod Marine of their memories has put on a few pounds, filling out his navy pinstriped suit. The students - virtually all white and nearly all male - don't even care that he has less to say about his political aspirations than he does about a bunch of Virginia Republicans they've never heard of and can't vote for. That he's here is enough; just one flash of that famous gap-toothed grin sends them into a tizzy.

Once the speech is over they line up for autographs and photographs. North obliges them willingly - striking a handshake pose for the men, putting his arm around the women, smiling on cue and even suggesting how to operate a stubbom camera - making him at once both a celebrity being fawned over by adoring fans and a shrewd political operator. The scene is campaign commercial picture-perfect.

Just out of camera range a couple of bodyguards stand watchfully, providing North with unobtrusive security. Not much farther away is North's chief of staff, Mark Merritt, who explains politely that his boss does not give interviews and says with a straight face that North was forced to file as a Senate candidate, transforming his exploratory committee into an official campaign committee, because "the problem is that he has such fundraising capacity." Just how much the aspiring senator has raised Merritt isn't saying; he allows only that "the money is still coming in. It's going better than we expected."

After every last person in the room wanting a signature or photo with North has gotten it, North's entourage escorts him down the hall, into an elevator and out again, where they disappear in the shadows of the hotel's basement-level garage.

This is the same Ollie North who, during his glory days at the White House, reveled in the shadows of covert operations and thrived on the power of secret deal-making. But now North, the arms-for-hostages dealmaker who disdained the U.S. Congress and, according to biographers and historians, circumvented its constitutional authority, has become North the Senate candidate. And behind this remarkable, only-in-America transformation is a story of personal and political empire-building - fueled by masterful fundraising and message-spreading operations. …

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