FAIRFAX, Va. -- One of the first questions to Republican senatorial nominee Oliver North from a student at the local high school here the other morning raised -- with the bark off -- the critical issue in his campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb.
"Colonel North," the teen-ager said, "character has become an issue in this campaign. You admittedly lied to Congress and violated the Constitution by raising and spending money without the authority of Congress. . . . In all due respect, why should voters vote for you?"
North did not blink at the blunt reference to his role in the Iran-contra affair.
"Let's correct the predicate on the question," he answered. "First of all, I didn't lie to Congress. The press said I lied to Congress, but the jury said I didn't. That's our system of justice. Second, I didn't violate the Constitution. I took an oath as a Marine officer to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to obey the orders of my superiors, and that is precisely what I did.
"No one was ever accused of violating the Constitution for helping to provide for democracy in Nicaragua or to rescue American hostages," North went on. "What I did, I did to save the lives of other people. . . . What's important to remember is what I did, without any hubris intended, was done at great personal risk, at the risk of my family and jeopardy to my career."
A few minutes later, another student asked North whether, if he became a member of a Senate committee that uncovered "any && illegal covert operation," he would "commend or condemn the person involved in lying." North shot back: "Well, I would certainly hope that he would appear before the committee and testify under oath, and do exactly what I did, that is, tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
Still later, another student asked what, beyond his denial that he had lied, "you have done to prove you are a trustworthy person." North replied that in his Iran-contra trial "the jury said not guilty on my charges."
nTC He did not tell the audience that while he was indeed acquitted on nine charges, he was convicted on one count of obstructing Congress, based on his misleading statements, as well as two others, one of unlawfully mutilating government documents and another of accepting an illegal gratuity. Those convictions later were overturned on grounds that they had been tainted by testimony given under congressional immunity.
Whatever else North did, he did not "tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" on this occasion. Later, pressed by reporters, he acknowledged that he had admitted earlier to misleading Congress, but not, he insisted, in the televised hearings.
North's appearance here was marked by carelessness with the truth in other ways large and small. He charged that Robb favored abortion "up to the last month" of pregnancy, which Robb does not. Later, again pressed by reporters, North said his statement "might be correctable."
Even on insignificant matters, North seems to toy with the truth. A black student, referring to North's earlier dismissal of complaints about the flying of the Confederate flag over a museum in the southern Virginia city of Danville, asked what he thought of the view of those like herself who saw the flag as "a symbol of their former enslavement."
North contended that he had only observed that the issue should be left to the people of Danville and Virginia to decide, not the federal government, and should not be an issue in a Senate campaign. Asked if he would "personally promote" the Confederate flag, he said, "I do not," then added, "In fact, quite frankly, Chuck Robb was wearing a Confederate tie the day he criticized me."
Robb, apprised of the comment, said flatly that he did not own such a tie and never wore one. In fact, Robb is a notoriously conservative dresser who wears dark blue and charcoal gray suits and regimental striped ties almost like a uniform. Once, says Susan Platt, his campaign manager, he came into the office wearing blue jeans, "but they were pressed."
North's aside about the alleged Confederate flag tie was a very small, even laughable, incident. But it illustrated how Oliver North seems to have trouble separating fact from fiction when he thinks he can score a political point. Whether it bothers Virginia voters much may determine whether he replaces Robb in the Senate.