The Day George Mitchell Saved American Patriotism From Oliver North

(When Sen. George Mitchell receives Commonweal's Catholic in the Public Square Award later this month, there will be little---and perhaps no---mention of his work on the Iran-contra committee and his July 13, 1987 statement to Col. Oliver North.  (There's no mention of it in the lengthy biographical entries about Mitchell on Wikipedia and the Academy of Achievement.) And that is probably as it should be.  Mitchell's more recent work as an international peacemaker, and particularly his work in Northern Ireland, will rightly take center stage.  All the more reason then, to remember it here.)

It was the summer of 1987 and the Iran-contra hearings were in full swing. As Congress came back from its Independence Day recess the man in the middle of the scandal, NSC aide Lt. Col. Oliver North, began his testimony...and a folk hero was born.

With his erect bearing, immaculate uniform, beribboned chest, and puppy-dog eyes, North embodied an American patriotic ideal.  A man of action who loves his country and will do what it takes to get the job done.  A man alternately bewildered at and defiant of those who would besmirch the honor of his good name.

Meanwhile the Congressional investigators looked like...members of Congress.  Mostly older, graying, paunchy, suited men who sounded like...well, members of Congress, speaking the orotund dialect peculiar to that body.

To the evident delight of some Republicans (e.g., Rep. Richard Cheney of Wyoming) on the 26 man (yes, all men) combined House and Senate select committees, North's reputation soared overnight as he cleverly exploited the committee's own rules to make soaring speeches in defense of himself and of the secret and illegal policies he had carried out---selling arms (despite an arms embargo) to Iran for the release of American hostages (thus providing a further incentive for kidnappers) and secretly funneling the funds raised to the contras in Nicaragua (despite the Boland Amendment).  "I didn't think it was wrong; I thought it was a neat idea," said North.  Most Americans watching the televised hearings cheered him on.

It was different on radio.

Having just moved to a new city, Mary and I were on a long and wonderfully enjoyable vacation road trip---visiting friends and family, attending weddings, traveling across upstate New York, sightseeing in Canada, returning slowly through several New England states to our new home.  When driving, we listened to the hearings and had a radically different experience than most Americans. On television Senate Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye appeared old, slow to react, and mildly disoriented.  (The dark sunglasses he wore to protect his weak eyes from the effects of TV floodlights added to the effect.)  But on radio, Inouye's stentorian tones sounded like the voice of God. (Once, when North's attorney interrupted Inouye, we both gasped in shock at the man's audacity.)

On radio you could hear---we were both sure---when North was lying.  And it happened often throughout that week: a slight extra pause before his response, a minor change in the pitch of his voice.

Whether on TV or radio, the hearings made for gripping theater.  We timed our lunch breaks to coincide with the committees' recesses so as not to miss a minute.  But in the evenings, we spent hours catching up with old friends and family members and enjoying each others' company.  We were increasingly sure that North's testimony had only further implicated both him and his superiors in their criminal conspiracy.

So we were shocked and mystified over the weekend---when we had time to read the newspapers and catch some of the Sunday morning news shows---to realize that North's popularity with the American people had soared throughout his first week of testimony.  Growing up, we'd heard about the first Kennedy-Nixon debate and how differently it was perceived by those who watched on television and those who listened on radio; but this was our first experience of that effect.

As a result, it was with a certain trepidation that we tuned the car radio to the local public radio station as we headed back out on the highway Monday morning, July 13.

Under rules adopted by the two select committees, most questioning of witnesses was done by committee members, not by the committee's lead attorneys; and each questioner was limited to one hour of time.  One of North's more successful tactics the previous week had been to, in effect, filibuster hostile questions, going on at great length under the guise of providing full answers.  The practical result---combined with another committee rule that dictated alternating between Democratic members and Republican members---was to deflect and evade questions about the criminal conspiracy that apparently involved much of the administration's senior foreign policy apparatus, and to allow North to launch numerous sermons and admonitions, instructing members of Congress in their duties and in the meaning of true patriotism.

As the junior senator from Maine, George Mitchell, began the day's questioning, it sounded like North's last day in the witness chair would be no different.  Mitchell, a soft-spoken former federal judge with thinning hair and oversized glasses, began by saying, in a voice dry as dust, "The questions last week were mostly about the facts. They're important, but it's also important to consider some of the broader policy and legal issues."  Then the familiar dance began---Mitchell attempting, with some success, to pin North down and North, also with some success, skittering away with an occasional rhetorical flourish.

I was not a neutral listener.  I'd grown up in Mitchell's hometown.  I knew his nieces and nephews as babysitters, classmates, teammates, friends and neighbors.  I knew to varying degrees his sister and his three brothers, all of whom had remained in Waterville and were respected members of the city's business, educational and social fabric.  Although I'd been introduced to Sen. Mitchell on occasion, and my parents knew him from their longstanding involvement in Democratic party politics (dating back to when my mother chaired the 1964 Democratic city committee and Mitchell was a top aide to Sen. Ed Muskie), I didn't know him well.  He was the Mitchell who had moved away, first to Portland and then to Washington, to pursue a career in law and politics.

So as the minutes ticked away and the end of Mitchell's allotted hour approached, I felt a sinking sense of despair that North---remember, I was sure I'd been able to hear all his lies that the millions watching his shiny uniform and handsome face hadn't been able to see during his previous four days of testimony---was going to slip away unscathed.

Then it happened.

Using the same calm, understated, reasonable (some might say, boring) tone of voice he had maintained throughout his questioning, Sen. Mitchell said, "My time is nearly up and I want to make some closing observations because you have, as I indicated, expressed several points of view with respect to which there are other points of view, and I think they ought to be expressed."

Despite that unpromising preface, what followed was one of the best, most timely and most eloquent statements about patriotism, the rule of law, the American ideal, and the role of God in American politics from a public official I've ever heard.  At the heart of Mitchell's statement to Col. North was this paragraph:

Of all the qualities which the American people find compelling about you, none is more impressive than your obvious deep devotion to this country.  Please remember that others share that devotion and recognize that it is possible for an American to disagree with you on aid to the contras and still love God and still love this country just as much as you do.  Although He's regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics, and in America disagreement with the policies of the government is not evidence of lack of patriotism.

Listening as we rolled down the highway, I could feel my spirits slowly being restored.  Without directly criticizing the man or his views, Mitchell had taken the air out of the bubble that was Oliver North's narrow, sanctimonious patriotism---and also out of the bubble that was North's soaring reputation with the American public.

To this day I remain grateful---as an American, as a Catholic, as someone who grew up in Waterville, Maine---for Sen. Mitchell's words and example during the Iran-contra hearings.  There's a moment almost exactly 5:00 into the video clip embedded above where Col. North nods in agreement as Mitchell describes the "most exciting thing I've ever done in my life", administering the oath of allegiance to new citizens when he had served as a federal judge.  It's the one time North's fixed expression changes during the entire speech.  I like to think that maybe, if only for that brief moment, Mitchell's description of a wider and deeper vision of patriotism, of the importance of equal justice under law, of what it means to be an American had reached across the divide Col. North had spent the previous week erecting; and that North, perhaps to his own surprise, found himself agreeing.

(Below is the full text and video of Sen. Mitchell's closing statement from that day.)

"My question was limited to the Contra resupply effort, which of course was only indirectly related to the hostage situation. But I want to -- my time is nearly up and I want to make some closing observations because you have, as I indicated, expressed several points of view with respect to which there are other points of view, and I think they ought to be expressed. And I'd like to do that now.

You've talked here often and eloquently about the need for a democratic outcome in Nicaragua. There's no disagreement on that. There is disagreement over how best to achieve that objective. Many Americans agreed with the President's policy. Many do not. Many patriotic Americans, strongly anti-Communist, believe there's a better way to contain the Sandinistas, to bring about a democratic outcome in Nicaragua and to bring peace to Central America. And many patriotic Americans are concerned that in the pursuit of democracy abroad we not compromise it in any way here at home.

You and others have urged consistency in our policies. You've said repeatedly that if we are not consistent our allies and other nations will question our reliability. That's a real concern. But if it's bad to change policies, it's worse to have two different policies at the same time; one public policy and an opposite policy in private. It's difficult to conceive of a greater inconsistency than that. It's hard to imagine anything that would give our allies more cause to consider us unreliable, than that we say one thing in public and secretly do the opposite. And that's exactly what was done when arms were sold to Iran, and arms were swapped for hostages.

Now, you've talked a lot about patriotism and the love of our country. Most nations derive from a single tribe, a single race. They practice a single religion. Common racial, ethnic, religious heritages are the glue of nationhood for many. The United States is different. We have all races, all religions. We have a limited common heritage. The glue of nationhood for us is the American ideal of individual liberty and equal justice.

The rule of law is critical in our society. It's the great equalizer, because in America everybody is equal before the law.We must never allow the end to justify the means, where the law is concerned, however important and noble an objective. And surely, democracy abroad is important, and is noble. It cannot be achieved at the expense of the rule of law in our country.

And our diversity is very broad. You talked about your background, and it was really very compelling; and is obviously one of the reasons why the American people are attracted to you. Let me tell you a story from my background.

Before I entered the Senate, I had the great honor of serving as a federal judge. In that position I had great power. The one I most enjoyed exercising was the power to make people American citizens. From time to time I presided at what we call "naturalization" ceremonies. They're citizenship ceremonies. These are people who came from all over the world, risked their lives, sometimes left their families and their fortunes behind, to come here. They'd gone through the required procedures, and I, in the final act, administered to them the oath of allegiance to the United States, and I made them American citizens. To this moment, to this moment, it was the most exciting thing I've ever done in my life.

Ceremonies were always moving for me because my mother was an immigrant, my father, the orphan son of immigrants. Neither of them had any education, and they worked at very menial tasks in our society. But, because of the openness of America, because of "Equal Justice Under Law" in America, I sit here today, a United States Senator. And, after everyone of these ceremonies, I made it a point to speak to these new Americans. I asked them why they came, how they came, and their stories, each of them, were inspiring. I think you would be interested and moved by them, given the views you've expressed on this country.

And, when I asked them why they came, they said several things, mostly two: The first is, they said, "We came because, here in America, everybody has a chance, opportunity." And, they also said, over and over again, particularly people from totalitarian societies who came here because here in America, you can criticize the government without looking over your shoulder. "Freedom to disagree with the government."

Now, you've addressed several pleas to this committee, very eloquently, none more eloquent than last Friday, when in response to a question by Representative Cheney, you asked that Congress not cutoff aid to the contras "For the love of God and for the love of country." I now address a plea to you.

Of all the qualities which the American people find compelling about you, none is more impressing than your obvious deep devotion to this country. Please remember that others share that devotion, and recognize that it is possible for an American to disagree with you on aid to the contras and still love God and still love this country just as much as you do. Although he's regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics, and in America disagreement with the policies of the government is not evidence of lack of patriotism.

I want to repeat that: IN AMERICA, DISAGREEMENT WITH THE POLICIES OF THE GOVERNMENT IS NOT EVIDENCE OF LACK OF PATRIOTISM. Indeed, it's the very fact that Americans can criticize their government openly and without fear of reprisal that is the essence of our freedom and that will keep us free.

Now, I have one final plea. Debate this issue forcefully and vigorously, as you have and as you surely will, but please do it in a way that respects the patriotism and the motives of those who disagree with you, as you would have them respect yours. Thank you very much, Colonel. Mr. Chairman, I have no further questions.

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 

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