Out of America: Ex-Marines ration the truth in Virginia

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - With six months to go to election day, Virginia's taste for straight- arrow soldiers, not surprising in the birthplace of Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson, is already providing the most entertaining political race of 1994. The candidates, Oliver North and Chuck Robb, are both former Marine career officers and both are accused of bare-faced lying.

The type of lies they are said to have told are different and so is their response. Mr North's troubles involve politics; Senator Robb's are to do with sex. Both have to explain past deviousness but still convince voters they retain soldierly virtues. A direct denial is, for differing reasons, no longer possible.

Mr Robb, the sitting Democratic Senator, and Mr North, the likely Republican challenger, have other parallels. Both fought in Vietnam and made their names in Washington. As a guard at the White House Mr Robb met and married Lynda Bird Johnson, daughter of the President.

Mr North at first fought to avoid appointment to the Reagan White House because it would damage his career by denying him combat experience. By counter-attacking at the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987 when everybody else was running for cover he elevated himself to become martyr-hero of the Republican right.

Virginian voters may be getting the message that they have two very strange candidates who have a lot of explaining to do. Up to last week Mr North seemed to be doing best. The most serious charge against him, that he lied to Congress and escaped sentence only by a technicality, damaged him chiefly among Democrats but they were never going to vote for him anyway. Misleading Congress is not the world's worst sin in the eyes of Virginia Republicans.

Mr North has also tended to get away with it, because, as so often happened with his mentor, Ronald Reagan, journalists and television anchors underestimate him. On ABC's Nightline, Ted Koppel called him 'an accomplished liar' but in most confrontations Mr North's earnest charm prevents his critics doing real damage.

To Republicans Mr North has all the right kind of enemies. Even an attack on his veracity by the deeply conservative Reader's Digest quoting denunciation of Mr North by Reagan White House officials did not seem enough to boost the fortunes of his lack- lustre Republican rival, James Miller, once Mr Reagan's budget director. His mistake may have been, paradoxically, to be rather too truthful about Mr Reagan's own role in the plan to supply arms to Iran, divert the profits to right-wing guerrillas in Nicaragua and conceal the facts from Congress.

The result was a thunderclap which hit the North campaign last week. Mr Reagan himself, normally pledged not to intervene in Republican infighting, publicly denounced Mr North in a letter, saying he was 'getting pretty steamed about the statements coming from Oliver North. I never instructed him or anyone in my administration to mislead Congress on Iran-Contra matters . . . The private meetings he said he had with me just didn't happen.' Mr North could hardly defend himelf by denouncing Mr Reagan, whose mantle he is busily trying to inherit.

Instead, he claims he was misrepresented by political opponents. Signing his reply to Mr Reagan Semper Fidelis - the motto of the Marine Corps - he gently implies that his loyalty to the former president is so deep that if Mr Reagan wants to use him as the fall-guy it is all right by him.

If Mr North was the simple soldier he purports to be then this denunciation should sink him. In fact, he is probably tough and smart enough to survive. An unrivalled fund-raiser, he has received dollars 25m ( pounds 16.7m) in contributions since 1987. He also has the advantage of facing Senator Robb, whose reputation has never recovered from accounts that, as governor in the Eighties, he had many girl-friends and attended cocaine parties.

Efforts by Mr Robb to come clean have done him little good. In a letter to supporters 10 days ago he admitted his behaviour was 'not appropriate for a married man'. The affairs and parties took place in Virginia Beach, where, he admitted, he had 'let my guard down'. He stuck by an earlier claim that 'the only woman I have loved emotionally or physically, since I have been married, is my wife Lynda'. He denied going to parties where drugs were used.

The letter, it turned out, was issued in the knowledge that the Washington Post had memos written by Mr Robb's own staff trying to assess his guilt. One written by his former press secretary said: 'Robb did engage in sexual relations, oral sex, with at least half-a-dozen women.' Asked about this, the Senator said: 'I previously said I hadn't slept with anyone, hadn't had an affair' and this was literally true.

Mr Robb's fine distinctions may escape Virginians. A commentator said the phrase about 'letting his guard down' made bimbos sound like the Vietcong. Against anybody else but Mr North he would lose his seat. For now he is ahead in the polls and benefiting from the Republicans' mini-civil war. 'It is what political professionals call a clothes-peg election,' said a Republican consultant who thinks Mr North will win. 'Both sides will have to suppress their sense of smell when they go out to vote.'