GUTS AND GLORY: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North; by Ben Bradlee Jr.; Donald I. Fine Inc.; 572 pages of text and 20 pages of pictures; $21.95.The Iran-Contra hearings produced a hero in Lt. Col. Oliver North - a handsome, gung-ho Marine who stood his ground under fire from Senate investigators. Whether you like him or not - and, he is facing charges for his role in the sale of arms to Iran and the funding of "freedom fighters" in Nicaragua - North makes good copy.
Ben Bradlee, a staff writer at the Boston Globe, has delved into North's past and written a tough, but fair, biography. Bradlee doesn't play any psychological games with his subject, ala Bob Woodward who works for Bradlee's dad at the Washington Post. The portrait that Bradlee paints of North is of a rather average Joe who had to work extra hard just to stay even with his peers. The frankness of military talk may shock some readers, but the book is a compelling and fascinating account of a career military officer caught up in the power games Washington likes to play.
North's mediocre scholarship at Annapolis is overshadowed by his dedication to the corps, his drive as a midshipman, his competitiveness in the boxing ring, and his easy-going manner around superiors after graduation. He was an able platoon commander in Vietnam who showed unusual compassion for and fierce loyalty to his men. He did not go out of his way to avoid hazardous assignments nor did he take unnecessary risks with his troops. He survived, and he was determined that the Marines he was responsible for also came back from the battle.
North was one of the few second and first lieutenants GIs felt as safe with "in Indian country" as they did inside the confines of a base. He was wounded, received a number of medals and left Vietnam confident he had performed well. He used that experience to train others and was well on his way up the Marine Corps ladder.
Despite these insights, the lieutenant colonel of Iran-Contra remains pretty much a mystery. Bradlee chronicles North's commitment to his family, though he was seldom home, his penchant for leaping to conclusions, then simply ignoring opposition viewpoints, and his "take charge" mentality by invoking the names of superiors who, in fact, hadn't authorized him to do so.
It was these character flaws that eventually tripped him up along with Vice Adm. John Poindexter and former CIA Director William Casey. The tight, well-organized Reagan White House appeared in chaos at the start of the second term. The election "mandate" actually backfired as the new White House team headed by Donald Regan sought to stifle dissenters, circumvent congressional intent in foreign affairs, while abiding by the letter of the law, and choosing simply to bypass Cabinet officers like George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger who opposed many of the National Security Council plans.
The NSC began assuming more and more control over covert operations as Congress sought to limit the Pentagon and the CIA from involvement in Latin America and elsewhere.
After the release of the Tower report of the lack of White House control over its security apparatus, one writer described North this way:
"He clearly is not by any stretch of the imagination or good will the `national hero' that President Reagan proclaimed him to be immediately after firing him late last year. And what we are left with now is a choice, it would seem, among North being (a) an ideological cowboy run amuck (b) an habitual and determined liar (c) a calamitously ignorant, naive and delusional operative with approximately the same qualifications for working at the National Secruity Council as Walter Mitty or (d) all of the above."
Bradlee however would add an (e): None of the above. Bradlee perceives North as a victim of circumstance. North is the dedicated Marine, who excelled at the Army War College, was thrust into a power vacuum at the White House and due to return to the War College for training to become a senior-grade officer. His tour of duty was extended six months then a year by Robert MacFarlane, the national security adviser.
One is left to wonder what would have happened had the commandant of the Marine Corps insisted North return to the War College instead of remaining on staff at the White House.
The fact that the trials in the Iran-Contra affair have been put on the back burner until after the 1988 election should give all the principals time to reflect on their roles. It also will give the American public a chance to assess North's performance of a year ago as he testifed under a grant of immunity before the congressional committees.
Bradlee's book is a definite "must" in that assessment.