Oliver North begins his bid to slither in from the cold

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The Independent Online
THE evening's communion with the faithful, on the cruellest winter night of the year, has gone well. He has delivered a short speech with the usual shots at Bill Clinton and the 'negative, liberal' press, and signed scores of copies of his new book, One More Mission.

Scores of hands shaken and female fans winked at (the right eye shifts to automatic flutter mode when women approach), Oliver North makes for the door. 'We have a plane to jump on don't we?' he asks his minders, his gap-toothed mouth stretched in the famous grin.

All the rest of the eastern United States has surrendered to the Arctic freeze. Not so Ollie. He has just told the meeting that this Wednesday, he will announce what has been known for months: that, despite - or, more accurately, thanks to - his fame as the pivotal figure in the Iran-Contra scandal of the mid-Eighties, he hopes to run as the Republican candidate in Virginia's Senate race this year.

On his way out, he acquiesces to a brief interview. North usually relishes bashing the media, with jibes about 'the Washington Compost', 'the New York Crimes' and even the 'Reader's Disgust'. But tonight I am treated like an old friend. Throwing an arm around my shoulders, he tells of his English grandfather emigrating to America. 'But he never said he was an Englishman, because he came from Yorkshire.'

North, smaller and greyer than I had expected, digresses again. He has a special grouse, it seems, against British newspapers. 'Today is the day in 1987, you may not remember, when a friend of mine, a man whom I admire deeply, a man who is a real hero, was taken hostage in Beirut. And his name was?'

I answer: 'Terry Waite.'

'I was disappointed with the way the British press treated him; they kind of wrote him off as a kind of megalomaniac and things like that. He's not, you know. He is a remarkably compassionate and courageous, Christian man.'

North - Lieutenant-Colonel, US Marines, Retired - has an ambiguous relationship with his murky past. His book has a cover picture taken at the Senate hearings in 1987, when the world first understood the extent of his involvement in the deal to sell arms to Iran and covertly, and illegally, divert some of the proceeds to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. It was those appearances and his subsequent convictions, later reversed on appeal, that made North a hero of the conservative right. To them, Congress was the traitor, trying to smear a man who had broken the law only to serve his president and the greater good.

That he can now present himself to voters as their putative representative in the institution he once lied to and reviled is, he argues, only a testament to his own resilience. 'I was raised in a family that said if you get knocked down, get back up,' he said. 'My boxing coach had four basic rules: if you get knocked down, get back up, keep your hands up, keep your feet moving, and get your backside off the deck. And that's my whole philosophy of life, and that's what I did.'

Getting off your backside is easier if you have money. North has lots of it, generated from the Iran-Contra affair. Apart from a business manufacturing bullet-proof waistcoats for police forces, he has had huge success raising money for his causes. The North Legal Defense Fund, established to cover his legal costs and now disbanded, netted dollars 13.2m ( pounds 9m). He is also founder of the right-wing Freedom Alliance, which raises money for his own political operations.

His 'blockbuster' books (his own description) - One More Mission, about his Vietnam experiences, and In the Line of Fire, on the Iran-Contra saga - have added to the riches. His home is a 194-acre ranch on the banks of the Shenandoah River, named Narnia, after the mythical land of the children's books of C S Lewis.

North can, however, expect his Iran-Contra notoriety to be thrown back at him by his opponents. His vulnerability was highlighted last week, when the long-awaited report on the affair, compiled by the special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, was released. North dismissed it as an irrelevance, but his lawyers had tried desperately to block its publication.

Because one of the three convictions against him was overturned and the other two dismissed on a technicality on appeal in 1990, North claims exoneration. Walsh bluntly dismisses this. 'North was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of serious criminal offences, and the court of appeal decision setting aside his conviction cast no doubt on his factual guilt.'

Still, most observers expect North to win the Republican nomination in the primary this June against James Miller, once Ronald Reagan's deficit-expanding budget director.

North is likely to go into a straight fight in November with the incumbent Democrat, Charles Robb, another ex-Marine. This is shaping up as one of the dirtiest elections for years. Robb has warned that he will make North's duplicitous role in Iran- Contra the prime issue. But mud will also stick to Robb, husband of Lyndon Johnson's eldest daughter. He has been accused of attending cocaine parties and bedding down with a former Miss Virginia.

'We've got two scandal- drenched candidates,' said Larry Sabato, politics professor at the University of Virginia. 'It's probably only Oliver North whom Chuck Robb can defeat, and it is probably only Chuck Robb whom Oliver North can defeat. They're made for each other. We're going to be waist- deep or more in sleaze.'

(Photograph omitted)