07/24/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
Once he stood tall before his accusers and wrapped himself in the flag. But even Old Glory, the Supreme Court has since ruled, is not fireproof. On the day after the Fourth of July, Oliver North, Lieutenant Colonel, USMC (Ret.), convicted in May on three felony counts, was sentenced to two years' probation and 1,200 hours of community service—and ordered to pay a $150,000 fine.
At the sentencing U.S. Judge Gerhard Gesell, who could have sent North to jail for 10 years, called him "a low-ranking subordinate working to carry out initiatives of a few cynical superiors" in the bizarre scheme to supply Nicaragua's contras out of profits from arms sales to Iran. Community service, the judge said, "may in the end make you more conscious of certain values which at times you...appear to have overlooked in the elite isolation of the White House. Your notoriety has caused many difficulties, but it has also made you a rich man. And where you go from here is up to you.... You can continue to flame the myth by which you have supported yourself during these recent difficult years or you can turn around now and do something useful."
Next month North, who is appealing the verdict, will begin this service at a drug-rehabilitation program in Washington, D.C. Paradoxically the sentence was seen as both too harsh and too lenient by his admirers. Too harsh because, as a convicted felon, he will be ineligible to vote or to hold public office; too lenient because only a prison term would have cast him in the role of principled martyr and put pressure on the President to issue a pardon. Yet even if North should find himself barred from candidacy, politics is now his milieu. According to right-wing strategist Howard Phillips, North has indicated he plans either to take charge of "a major conservative organization" or establish his own. He has no intention of fading away.