Sometimes looks can be deceiving. Take me and Oliver North, for example.
Here’s how our paths crossed: Oliver North was in Washington, DC, to stand trial for his role in selling arms to our sworn enemies in Iran to benefit terrorists in the Middle East and to raise funds for terrorists in Nicaragua. I was in DC for some kind of journalism seminar.
And the similarities don’t end there.
Anyway, it was late winter in our nation’s capital. The skies were sunny and bitterly cold. My seminar had ended and I tacked on a few days to visit the Smithsonian, sit in on Congress, and catch Col. North’s trial at the Elijah Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse.
I handle cold weather well, but I figured I might have to stand out in the cold to get into the Capitol or into the “Trial of the Century” over at the Prettyman, so I bundled up in a navy-blue sport coat and beige trench coat. I didn’t need a hat in those days because I had hair, but I did need my sunglasses.
I went to some of the Smithsonian stuff I hadn’t seen before and then went over to the Capitol to listen to some congressman drone on about something to do with Nebraska. There were just three or four of us in the gallery, but I think we outnumbered the representatives on the floor that day. The few of us in the gallery came to witness the legislative process. The handful of representatives apparently had come for the hot coffee.
I grew weary of the plight of the future farmers of Nebraska, so I wandered over to the Prettyman Courthouse to stand in line for a seat at the “Trial of the Decade.” When I got there I was surprised to find there was no line. I was escorted in through some level of what today would seem like laughable security and was guided to a seat in the courtroom directly behind a table with three chairs.
Almost immediately we were told to rise and a bunch of people entered the courtroom, including someone in a black robe and a very mild-mannered looking guy who strongly resembled Oliver North and who sat at one of the chairs at the table directly in front of me.
I expected the infamous Colonel North to look like a pillar of steel with a laser-like stare. That was not my impression of the man I saw that day. He seemed rather small and didn’t exude the kind of confidence (or even arrogance) I expected. Don’t get me wrong: He obviously could have killed me with a couple of flicks of his wrist, but he sure didn’t look like he any desire to do so. He turned briefly to look at the people sitting in the row I had been placed in. His eyes looked a little sad and I wonder if he hoped to see someone he knew, such as a family member or an old Marine buddy. Instead he saw me and some other strangers and he nodded his head slightly, as if in greeting. I reciprocated the awkward gesture so as not to appear rude. He seemed very human. I admit that surprised me a little.
I came into the courthouse with preconceived biases. I agreed with many of the Reagan administration’s goals, but I strongly objected to its use of terrorists and drug traffickers to topple regimes it viewed unfavorably. I also objected philosophically to learning that behind all his tough condemnation of the Carter administration’s “weakness” lay his plot to ransom hostages. I assumed that the people behind such a brazen plot would be hardened criminals, and that Oliver North would be Exhibit A.
Instead he seemed … well, not scared, but not arrogant, either. The testimony against him was esoteric but damning and he sat relatively motionless until a bailiff approached the judge, and then the defense and prosecution tables. Colonel North was briskly escorted from the courthroom and we were told we had to leave as well, calmly but quickly. As we left I asked a guard what was wrong and he mumbled something like “Bomb threat, but don’t say anything …”
Although the courtroom exchanges were dry, I had listened intently. But I also kept an eye on Oliver North, trying to get a measure of the man. I’m not making apologies for him, but by now I had come to consider him something of a pawn in this whole thing, even a fall guy. I walked into the courtroom thinking he might be some kind of evil mastermind, but I was having doubts. I wondered if he had even considered the philosophical arguments about what he was doing or if he was just proud to be a colonel in the United States Marines, personally serving the Commander in Chief. Perhaps, I thought, he might even know that what he was doing wasn’t the right thing, but it WAS something that saved the lives of some fellow Americans. I had never done anything to save lives, so I cut him some slack.
I stood on the steps of the Prettyman Courthouse on that sunny winter day, contemplating patriotism, heroism and stuff like that. I stared vacantly at the National Mall through my dark sunglasses, thinking deep thoughts. “What if I have Ollie North all wrong,” I thought. “What if he’s really …”
“Excuse me …” I suddenly heard a female voice say. I was startled back to reality to see two middle-aged women standing next to me, trying to appear nonchalant. “Excuse me,” the one repeated, “But that man over there is making threats about Colonel North.”
“Threats?” I responded, pondering this odd course of events. “Well maybe not threats,” she said, “but pretty terrible things …”
I stared down at these women through my sunglasses, trying to think of some advice to give them. I just nodded while contemplating an answer.
“Well,” the one said, “Aren’t you going to do something? You guys said this was a bomb threat; maybe he’s the guy who called it in!”
Suddenly I saw myself as they probably saw me: A big guy in a sport coat and trench coat, silently surveying the National Mall through dark sunglasses from the top of the staircase of the federal courthouse where the “Trial of the Week” was taking place. “Shit,” I thought. “They think I’m Secret Service or something!” I found myself suddenly at a loss for words.
“Uh, no,” I stammered, “Umm, I don’t work here …”
That’s the best I could do. These two women thought they were doing their patriotic duty by reporting a potential assassin to a big, strong-looking enforcer of the law … who turned out to be just some guy in town for a journalism seminar.
Soon we went back in for some more of the Oliver North trial. I was back a few rows now, but I still observed him, wondering who he really was …