updated 07/27/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/27/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

We had him pegged. Even hard-shell conservatives suspected that Lt. Col. Oliver North was a real-life Rambo who had run amok in the Reagan White House. He was seen as a power-mad Marine who had engineered Contragate behind the President's back and then been fired from the White House for setting up a shadowy empire of Levantine arms merchants, CIA renegades and Central American mercenaries to execute a clandestine foreign policy. Had his orders come from higher up? We were pretty sure they had, but we were also convinced he had carried them out recklessly. Oh, how we longed to see the sinister colonel sitting in the hot seat before the joint congressional committees, squirming under close interrogation. And, oh, what a shock we got when North at last appeared to tell his tale.

Instead of a hairy-eared militarist, we saw a slender, boyishly handsome man with a direct gaze and a chestful of medal ribbons. He looked remarkably like Mel Gibson and spoke with a persuasive air of sincerity that evoked a young Jimmy Stewart. But this was a Jimmy Stewart with smart-aleck humor, virile charm and forceful eloquence—not to overlook passion, conviction, intelligence and supporting fire supplied by a bristling lawyer named Brendan Sullivan. Bringing all these guns to bear, the colonel fought for his honor with skill and charisma. In six exhausting days of testimony he handled the committees and their high-powered attorneys, dazzled millions of viewers and, in a reversal of reputation as dramatic as any since Benedict Arnold's, transformed a national villain named Oliver North into a gung-ho presence the nation called Ollie. Well before the end of his testimony, Ollie-mania had become as perfervid as The Marines' Hymn.

North won his battles with a barrage directed over the heads of the committees and into the living rooms of America. "I came here," he announced to his inquisitors, "to tell you the truth, the good, the bad and the ugly"—a macho, melodramatic borrowing from the Clint Eastwood flick that set just the right tone for the storming of America that was about to ensue.

North's strategy seemed designed to hold the committees at bay until public opinion could come galloping to his rescue—and come it did. By Day Three of the hearings, more than 2,000 telegrams had deluged the White House, only 83 of them critical of North. During the six days of his testimony close to 120,000 of the "give-'em-hell-Ollie"-grams were delivered to the colonel in foot-high stacks. Western Union's cut-rate for opinion-grams was so popular that its wires were choked by callers eager to hail the rising North star. Carts full of flowers for Ollie were trundled into the Russell Senate Office Building every day. Planes towing banners acclaiming North were cheered to the echo as they circled over ballparks and beaches. Citizens who said they had never done anything of the sort before rushed to North's support in a massive, spontaneous outpouring of emotion. Radio call-in shows were besieged by listeners who sang, shouted and babbled in praise of the Marine light colonel. And daily polls profiled a nation that supported him 5 and 6 to 1.

The media trumpeted the charge. All three networks, canceling soap operas, game shows and commercials at an aggregate loss of almost $2.5 million a day, covered the hearings from gavel to gavel and played to 55 million fascinated viewers—10 percent above the daily norm and slightly higher than the average for the Watergate hearings. "Colonel North," proclaimed NBC's Tom Brokaw, "has hit a grand slam." Session by session, excitement mounted: Late in the week CBS anchor Dan Rather said, "A Jack Kemp-Oliver North team is being talked about." Two weeks in a row both TIME and Newsweek featured North's face on their covers. All over the U.S. big black headlines (NORTH RAMS IT DOWN POLS' THROATS—New York Post) cheered him on.

The powerful first wave of pro-North sentiment did not overwhelm skeptics, who were outraged by North's candidly confessed wrongdoing and saw him as a dangerous demagogue of the far right. Hollywood nabob Dan Melnick said flatly that North was "a narcissistic psychopath." Norman Lear dripped contempt: "He gets tears in his eyes. TV loves moist." And columnist Mary McGrory snarled sweetly that he was "Moses in uniform," and "the cutest colonel the country ever saw." Columnist Mike Royko suggested dryly that North was still lying to the committees—"If he were Pinocchio his nose would have been halfway to the White House." But even if North were proved to have lied through his gap teeth, it's not certain his appeal would fade. Indeed, in a Yankelovich poll 67 percent thought he was a true patriot even though 49 percent believed he was untruthful. The polls revealed a surprising sophistication: Although 77 percent felt he had been scapegoated, only 29 percent thought him a national hero.

Rightists, of course, adored him. Jim Bakker pronounced North "one of a vanishing breed that puts his country first." Convicted Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy intoned: "Ollie North speaks the truth and it rings in the heart of every American." Conservative pundit William F. Buckley Jr. hastened to add that North belonged in the U.S. Senate. The colonel also picked up some crossover endorsements from the other side of the center stripe—author Alex Haley (Roots) said he was "dramatic, charismatic, an inherent leader: What more do you want? We've had people with less going for them run for President."

Matter of fact, in several states a grass-roots Ollie-for-President movement has taken off. Steven Jones, 38, a Kansas City roofer, has gathered 2,000 signatures on a petition calling for North to be elected to the Oval Office. "He hit me right in the heart," says Jones. OLLIE FOR PREZ, 1988 buttons and bumper stickers are busting out all over; so are T-shirts that screech: I'D FOLLOW OLLIE INTO HELL! (though a dissenting garment declares: OLLIE NORTH IS A DIRTBAG). With a less visionary end in view, political consultant Keith Haines, a Naval Academy classmate of North's, has set up an Oliver North defense fund that already has collected more than $120,000 toward his legal bills, which are expected to escalate well beyond $500,000. Sister Denise, a 74-year-old Detroit nun who donated $10 of her $159 Social Security check to the defense fund, calls him "one of the most remarkable young men we've had for some time."

Substantial contributions are expected from the burgeoning Ollie North spin-off industries. Several manufacturers have begun to produce Ollie North dolls; barbers all over the U.S. are offering Ollie North haircuts (very short on back and sides, a little longer on top) and in Pasadena, Calif., a restaurant is selling Ollie Burgers (shredded beef, shredded American cheese, shredded coleslaw and shredded lettuce) for $4.95. A St. Louis rock station promised to award an "Oliver North shredder" to a lucky caller, and Virginia's WMJR-FM offered listeners a VIRGINIA IS FOR SHREDDERS T-shirt.

There's even a new disc called Ollie Be Good that is drawing heavy airplay these days. It's a perky parody of Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode and it goes like this: Way down the White House basement lived a colonel man/ Who figured that he had to help his Uncle Sam/ He thought he was the hero who could save the day/ By making Nicaraguan Commies go away/ He never ever learned to read the law so well/ But he could shred that secret paper like a-ringing a bell/ Go, go Ollie go/Go, go Ollie go/ Go, go Ollie go/ Go, go Ollie go/ Ollie be good. Detroit disc jockey Dick Purtan recorded an Ollie North rap song, which includes the lines: If you did what you say, you oughta know better/ You and Fawn Hall stickin' stuff in the shredder.

Olliemania, in short, is a fact of American life in midsummer 1987. It may not last till Labor Day—but then again it may. Lt. Col. Oliver North is a force to be reckoned with: a can-do ideologue, a genie in an electronic bottle who has proved himself capable of summoning waves of mass enthusiasm. His appeal appears to be broad, attracting young and old, rich and poor. Women, who generally turn off to muscular rhetoric, seem drawn to him almost as strongly as men. They like his self-portrayal as a man of passion, directness, complexity and strength—who is semper fi to his wife. Fifteen minutes after he took the oath before the committees, a usually sedate woman reporter gasped, "I want to have his baby!" Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times burbled happily that North was "adorably dimpled" and "everything that the magazines say modern woman is looking for: a vulnerable yet strong Alan Alda type with the sensitive eyes of a cocker spaniel, a snappy dresser whose carefully combed brunet forelock...makes you long to brush it back with your hand."

One of Hollywood's top casting directors, Jane Feinberg, also responds elementally to the man who lured her out of bed at 6 a.m. to watch his act. "He's more than handsome," she says. "His eyes are wonderful. And his honesty just screams at you. He's my kind of man. He has sex appeal, with character behind it. You feel taken care of. He's real passionate, and what woman doesn't love a man with passion?"

On the screen, Feinberg says, North has a "dramatic impact" that very few actors can match. Will he be offered a movie contract? Probably not, but producers are talking excitedly about the book they confidently expect North to write. Two eminent publishers, Michael Korda of Simon and Schuster and Howard Kaminsky of Random House, are already talking in terms of "a seven-figure advance." Says Korda: "You have Ollie North, Iran, the President, missiles, Israel, intrigue and espionage. No price is crazy if you can earn it back with a best-seller." Such a book would undoubtedly be sold for big bucks to TV or the movies.

Who would play Ollie? All Hollywood is speculating. "Mel Gibson is the best bet," says producer Laurence Mark. But reporters have been ringing Treat (Prince of the City) Williams' phone off the hook, according to his agent. Harrison Ford is often mentioned, and producer Craig Zadan likes Dennis (The Right Stuff) Quaid. As for Betsy North, her role is too passive, most directors agree, to attract Meryl, Debra, Sissy or Sigourney. Discussion centers on Kate (Indiana Jones) Capshaw, Karen (Raiders) Allen and Dee (E.T.) Wallace. Fawn Hall, most moviemakers agree, should be played by Fawn Hall.

Will Ollie go for the gold? He could certainly use it to defray legal expenses and find a second career, since his days as a Marine are almost certainly numbered. A lucrative film or TV series might also make yet another powerful argument for the policies he has fought for.

For the immediate future, however, he won't have much time to write a book: North and his lawyers face a sobering engagement with the law. Independent counsel Lawrence Walsh may still indict North on criminal charges. Despite all the drama, emotion and hoopla aroused by his testimony, the patriotic note that vibrated so sympathetically across the land when struck by North contained dangerous discord. It fell to those gray, sometimes hectoring legislators on the panel to point it out—in speeches that may have put the nation to sleep but whose collective message warranted attention. "The rule of law is critical in our society," said Sen. George Mitchell (D.-Maine). "We must never allow the end to justify the means where the law is concerned." His triumph on Capitol Hill was comforting, but now North must fight to stay out of jail.

—Written by Brad Darrach from bureau reports

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