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It hasn’t exactly been a banner year for the National Rifle Association (NRA). Rattled by the outpouring of student activism that followed the February Parkland school shooting, the organization has floundered for a response to grassroots anger, and has seen its popularity plummet to the lowest point in decades. It’s hard to see how it could sink any lower.
Or at least it was until last week, when the NRA announced that Oliver North of Iran-Contra fame would join the organization as its new president.
Although having worked as a radio host and television news contributor for the past twenty years, North is and likely forever will be most associated with the three-decade-old political scandal that shot him to infamy.
But far from the PR gaffe it seems at first sight, the decision to place him at the helm of the NRA may portend something else entirely: that the NRA is jettisoning mainstream acceptability entirely to instead serve as the new vanguard of the conservative movement.
A known criminal
The NRA must have known its choice of North was going to ruffle some feathers. North was serving on Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council in 1986 when he was catapulted to notoriety over his involvement in the Iran-Contra scheme. In short, North was the point man for the Reagan administration’s convoluted plan to bypass the Democrat-controlled Congress’ ban on financial aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, a paramilitary force that killed, raped, kidnapped and tortured all in the name of anti-communism.
North arranged and oversaw a clandestine effort to smuggle arms and money to the Contras, which involved secretly providing weapons to Iran, partly in return for the (unsuccessful) release of American hostages in Beirut, and partly for money. That money in turn was then squirrelled away into the Swiss bank accounts of individuals involved in the plot and used to illegally buy weapons for the Contras. North bought 158 tons of assault rifles and ammunition from one drug and arms trafficker alone: Monzer al-Kassar, a Syrian who would later be sentenced to 30 years in prison for trying to sell weapons to the FARC in Colombia that would be explicitly used against Americans.
This wasn’t all North did, however. He also received $98,000 in traveler’s checks from the leader of the Contras, which he proceeded to cash at restaurants, hotels, gas stations, cleaners, a hosiery retailer and other stores around the DC area. He even gave $1,000 in traveler’s checks to his “courier” in the scheme as a wedding present. Meanwhile, North was gifted a $13,800 home security system from Richard Secord, a retired Air Force Major-General whose firm served as the conduit for the arms. North in turn urged the CIA to pay Secord $1.2 million for the use of a ship he had bought for a quarter of that price.
When the whole thing began to unravel, North began shredding evidence — in one case, a few feet away from investigators from the attorney general’s office who were poring over documents in his office — and altering memos to obscure the role of his superiors. All the while, nearly $8 million from the Iranian arms sales remained in the Swiss bank accounts of Secord and his business partner, with only $4 million having been spent on the Contras.
When called before Congress, North relentlessly lied and obfuscated, refusing to implicate any of his higher-ups in the scheme, winning him much kudos from his superiors. Later, he shifted to deploying the Nuremberg defense that he was simply following orders, and happily began naming names, including ex-CIA Director William Casey, former Secretary of State George Shultz, and former Vice President George H. W. Bush, who by that point had been elected president. Unsurprisingly, when North went on trial, the newly elected Bush had tried unsuccessfully to have the whole thing scrapped.
North was finally convicted of three felonies, all of which were related to peripheral crimes like his obstruction of justice, and none of which concerned the chief crime at hand. He received a lenient sentence with no prison time, and ultimately had his convictions overturned over a technicality: his Congressional testimony years earlier was deemed to have contaminated the jury.
The NRA isn’t going to be winning any PR battles by choosing as president a man who not only violated U.S. law and tried to cover it up, but also personally enriched himself and his associates through the scheme while working with people designated by the U.S. government as terrorists. This is especially the case given that North’s crime — smuggling weapons in order to continue a campaign of mass murder — is an image one would think the NRA desperately wants not to be associated with.
But there’s another part of North’s story that is equally important — that of North as a conservative movement hero.
North has long been a hugely popular icon to movement conservatism. While the liberal-left viewed him as an unrepentant criminal, for conservatives, he was a valiant, persecuted warrior who held loyalty to a higher power.
Far from tarnishing his reputation, North’s congressional testimony — in which he criticized Congress and unapologetically defended both his crime and cover-up — turned him into a national sensation. The hearings were a ratings bonanza and North received thousands of messages of support and greeted adoring crowds. His hometown held an “Oliver North Day,” in which 2,000 people marched. Even his barber became a minor celebrity.
An entire cottage industry of Oliver North products popped up, everything from t-shirts and videos to buttons and dolls. While not all who sympathized with him viewed him as a hero, doubtless many agreed with Reagan’s White House communications director when he compared North to members of the Underground Railroad, who broke the law in service of a higher ethical calling. The Wall Street Journal asked a handful of CEOs if they would hire him. “North’s the kind of guy that executives look for, the employee of their dreams,” was one response.
This explosion in popularity was short-lived — particularly once it was revealed how he used the scheme to personally profit — but North remained white hot among conservatives.
He parlayed this popularity into a lucrative career as one of the most sought-after speakers in the United States, criss-crossing the country to speak to conservative audiences for up to $25,000 a pop. Local Republicans, police chiefs, lawyers and religious leaders paid hundreds of dollars each to see him speak and shake his hand. One GOP candidate for lieutenant governor of Georgia paid him $20,000 to participate in a fundraiser. In the course of one year, 1998, North was reported to have made more than he had during all his years in the military.
North also began campaigning for conservative candidates, such as Indiana congressman Dan Burton, and delivering boilerplate right-wing patter about free enterprise and family values. Not that it was for show — North was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who later campaigned against homosexuals in the military, railed against gun control, got in trouble for racist remarks at a Virginia Republican banquet and complained about an “arrogant army of ultrafeminists” dominating U.S. politics in the Clinton years.
North’s embrace by evangelicals and movement conservatives continued even after his criminal convictions. In 1991, the Southern Baptist Convention invited him to speak in Atlanta, where he told a rapturous crowd that politics needed more Christian involvement and called for prayer in schools. He started Freedom Alliance, a 100,000-member group lobbying for things like school prayer, as well as Guardian Technologies, a firm founded with fellow Iran-Contra figure Joseph Fernandez that sold bulletproof vests. His radio show, “Freedom Report,” was broadcast by 280 stations by 1991.
Through his various ventures, North paid off his millions of dollars of legal bills and became a bestselling author. He also became fabulously wealthy, making an estimated $1.7 million a year off speaking alone. He never entirely lost mainstream acceptability either. In 1992, he cameoed on the NBC sitcom Wings, in which he explicitly plugged his book. This came on the heels of a 1989 TV movie about North in which the director, trying to make the film more critical of North, tussled with the actor playing him, who considered himself “a North American” and regarded the former general as a personal hero.
This on-set polarization mirrored the nationwide split in opinion on North, who in 1994 became something like the Roy Moore — or Donald Trump — of his time. North decided to run for a seat in Congress — the institution he regularly assailed on the speaking circuit, apparently deciding he liked the sound of the “veritable Sodom and Gomorrah on the banks of the Potomac” that he spent years railing against. North ran as a Republican for the Virginia Senate seat occupied by Charles Robb, son in law of the late former President Lyndon Johnson, who admitted to vague charges of infidelity shortly before the campaign, and who had earlier been in trouble for attending parties where cocaine was in free flow (not that he ever saw or used it, of course).
Over the course of five years, North built up a total of $20 million through a direct-mail campaign that reached around 65,000 people across the country each month, as well as generated goodwill among the GOP establishment through V-PAC, a political action committee that doled out $540,000 to Republican candidates in Virginia.
As much as Trump and Moore would create a rift among the Republican party while inspiring zealous loyalty from evangelicals, North’s Senate campaign roiled the GOP establishment at the time. He received the enthusiastic backing of the Christian Right and movement conservatives like Richard Viguerie, who put his direct mail empire behind North.
At the same time, he was pilloried by a parade of former Reagan officials and establishment Republicans, including Ronald Reagan himself. This was no doubt motivated by the fact that North had thrown them all under the bus in the course of defending himself, but it reflected a real unease among establishment Republicans, some of whom refused to support North at the nominating convention. “There’s a major rift within the party,” political scientist Mark Rozell said at the time. “It is in the party’s interest to be open, diverse, inclusive. But with North as the party’s candidate, it will appear to be beholden to an ideological faction, unable to broaden its base.”
North ultimately won the nomination, a sign of broader political developments. As the London Observer noted at the time, the GOP was “being taken over by a crusading right-wing arc made up of purist economic libertarians and evangelical Christians like Pat Robertson, backed by the gun lobby and other interest groups.” Establishment Republicans worried that North was “divisive,” while Virginia Senator John Warner threatened to quit the party.
But just as they would later do with Trump, the GOP establishment soon fell into line. Former Reagan officials like James Baker and prominent Republicans like Bob Dole and Dan Quayle all campaigned for North, believing he could unseat the scandal-ridden Robb. And thanks to the $20 million he spent on the campaign, North came close, ultimately falling just short thanks to voters motivated not by enthusiasm for his opponent, but concern over North.
The Right’s man
North’s 1994 Senate campaign was the high watermark of his post Iran-Contra career, but he’s remained visible in conservative circles ever since. In 1997, a who’s who of conservatives numbering 450, including numerous members of Congress like Orrin Hatch, celebrated the ten-year anniversary of North’s testimony at a banquet in his hated D.C., paying $150 per plate. His radio show remained popular, and North was given his own place on TV, first with MSNBC, then Fox, where he quite literally cheered on the Iraq War. He’s remained a talking head on the channel since.
North’s appointment doesn’t make much sense from a public relations standpoint. But it does make sense as an expression of politics.
The NRA was long ago transformed from a bipartisan organization focused on hunting to a partisan arm of the conservative movement, only becoming more ideologically extreme over time. Last year, it released a recruitment video explicitly tailored to the Right, presenting NRA membership as a bulwark against the encroaching power of the Left and liberals, drawing outrage for its apparent encouragement of political violence.
The choice of North — a polarizing figure beloved by the Right, disliked by the center and loathed by the Left, who presaged the Republican fissures of the Trump era — is yet another overture to the NRA’s true constituency: not gun owners, but specifically right-wing gun owners and movement conservatives more generally. As political scientist Robert Spitzer recently explained: “He won’t do anything to help broaden the NRA’s appeal, but rather to try and bring in people already sympathetic who may be susceptible to an appeal.”
The polls all suggest the NRA is losing the mainstream. But for the organization, that ’s apparently fine — the NRA has decided it can live without it.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.