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Go North, Old Man

Ollie North an honoree? What's with old people today?

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Back when I was a boy, the winters were colder, the summers hotter, and old people were, well, older. Play by the rules, they used to tell us. Mind your manners. Respect authority.

 

Nowadays, though, seniors just don't give a damn. "If it feels good, do it," seems to be their motto; next they'll be joining bike gangs.

 

At least that's what I gather now that St. Barnabas, one of Pittsburgh's leading providers of health care to the elderly, is giving its highest accolades to Lt. Col. Oliver North. That's right: the guy who played a key role in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s.

 

You kids today wouldn't know it, what with your Whitewaters and your Monica Lewinskys, but in those days, scandals were scandals: North sold anti-aircraft missile systems to the Iranians in exchange for releasing a handful of American hostages. Then he took some of the proceeds and gave the money to the contras, a rebel group trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. Such actions violated our policy of not negotiating with terrorists. They also violated federal law: The Boland Amendment prevented the U.S. from supporting the contras, whose methods of "freedom fighting" included occasionally slaughtering the people they were supposedly trying to liberate. North and his associates then tried to mislead Congressional investigators about what was going on.

 

By contrast, St. Barnabas seems a worthy organization. Its assisted-living facilities in Valencia and Richland Township provide care to hundreds of area seniors, many of whom couldn't afford to stay anywhere else. St. Barnabas offers house calls, dental services, and gives Christmas presents to tens of thousands in the tri-state area. So why would such a decent, faith-based group give its Hance Award, named after the organization's founder, to Oliver North? Why would it want to make such a dishonorable guy the guest of honor at its April 22 Founder's Day dinner?

 

A St. Barnabas press release notes only that North is "[a] well-known American figure [who] recently covered the war in Iraq as an embedded reporter for the Fox News Channel." True enough, although half of that description -- "a well-known American figure" -- could just as easily apply to John Dillinger or Al Capone. (The other half could just as easily apply to Geraldo Rivera.)

 

St. Barnabas spokeswoman Kathleen Brenneman acknowledges that North's selection is controversial: "We've received some comments from the public questioning the decision." But North's "merits outweigh the controversial things in his past. He's gone on to do a lot of great things." For example, North has a nationally syndicated conservative talk-radio show, which Brenneman calls "a voice for conservative Christians. And he's certainly been an advocate for soldiers" during his stint on Fox News. "We pride ourselves on being patriots, and Oliver North certainly fits the bill."

 

No doubt North will seem like a patriot to those who attend the Founder's Day dinner: Tickets for the event start at $200 a plate, and Reagan-era officials prove very popular among that crowd. Previous Hance Award winners include Reagan's Secretary of State Alexander Haig and Barbara Bush. Attendees at this year's event will be sure to enjoy North's speech, even if he hasn't chosen a topic. As Brenneman says, "We've left it open-ended -- we're totally comfortable with whatever he would choose to do." (Note to St. Barnabas: That attitude is what got Reagan in trouble.)

 

But does Oliver North really "fit the bill" of being a patriot? Oddly, my civics textbooks never advocated the offenses he was convicted of: destroying evidence, accepting illegal gifts, or aiding and abetting in the obstruction of Congress. (Those convictions were later tossed out because of a technicality involving the Congressional immunity North received.) To see conservatives -- Christian conservatives, no less -- turn a blind eye to a White House official bearing false witness is a bit disconcerting, Especially after all the bleating about Clinton's White House.

 

Of course, forgiveness is stressed in the Christian faith -- unlike, say, conspiring to defraud the American people. Perhaps the trustees of St. Barnabas simply have a spiritual charity I lack. But I was taught that before there can be forgiveness, there must also be contrition, and North has never shown any. When the scandal first broke, North ordered his assistant, Fawn Hall, to conduct "shredding parties," and North himself falsified and destroyed records. Even when the jig was up, he remained unrepentant: In testimony before Congress, he opined that undermining the law and U.S. foreign policy was "a neat idea."

 

North isn't the only person to enjoy such compassion. His boss during Iran-Contra, Adm. John Poindexter, today heads up a Pentagon anti-terrorism project seeking to monitor Americans' private e-mail transmissions, personal health records, and credit-card purchases. Other key Iran-Contra figures enjoy business ties with Richard Perle, one of the administration's leading hawks on the war in Iraq. And in case you've forgotten, the vice president during the Iran-Contra affair was George W. Bush's father, who pardoned key figures in the scandal before they could be tried for their crimes.

 

It all makes you wonder why today's White House officials are so hesitant to testify about, say, allegations that they overstated the WMD threat from Iraq. Ollie North proved they've got nothing to worry about: Just go before the cameras and admit you lied. You'll be fine as long as you do it while smiling and wearing a chestful of medals. Granted, that last part might be a tad difficult for senior members of today's administration, few of whom served in the military. But at least they'll be able to claim, as plausibly as Reagan's staffers did, that the president had no idea what was going on: Given the Christian right's capacity for forgiveness, soon they'll have radio shows and charitable groups lining up to shake their hands.

 

This kind of thing would never fly in the good old days, back when seniors were seniors. Hokey as it may sound, I remember being at Grandma Potter's house the day Iran-Contra broke: President Reagan appeared with Attorney General Edwin Meese, who promised to get to the bottom of things. "That man's a crook!" Grandma scoffed. She was of simple South Dakota farming stock, but she knew a load of bull when she saw it. And she taught me the real meaning of patriotism: Loving your country sometimes means protecting it from the scoundrels who wrap their misdeeds in the flag.

 

But it seems like they don't make seniors -- or so-called "conservative Christians," for that matter -- like they used to. Nowadays, it seems, age is wasted on the elderly.

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