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Oliver North Will Be the Next President of the NRA. Here’s What to Know About the Arms Deal That Made Him Famous

5 minute read

Before it was announced on Monday that Oliver North will be the next President of the National Rifle Association (NRA), he was associated with arms for a very specific reason.

In the mid-’80s, when Nicaraguan right-wing rebels were opposing President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government, North was a National Security Council staffer. The Reagan administration supported the cause of the rebels, known as contras, but Congress stopped the U.S. from supporting them financially. At the time, North helped figure out a way to get the contras that support without Congress. The solution was to divert money to them that the Iranians had paid for arms ultimately provided by the U.S. via Israel — a deal that was itself part of an exceedingly complicated effort that also aimed to free a group of hostages — even though Congress had banned such aid. The scheme, which became public in late 1986, became known as the Iran-contra Scandal.

Many wondered whether and to what extent Ronald Reagan knew about the wheeling and dealing, but North — whom the President told TIME was a “national hero” — was at the center of the hunt for someone to hold accountable. He was indicted for fraud and obstruction of justice in March of 1988, and on May 4 of the following year he was convicted of submitting a false timeline of events to Congress, shredding government documents as news of the deal became public, accepting an illegal gift of a $13,800 home-security system and forging letters showing he paid for it. He didn’t have to go to prison, but he was ordered to do 1,200 hours of community service and pay a $150,000 fine.

But the judge dropped all of the charges in 1991, after a drawn-out debate over whether the Congressional immunity he had been granted compromised the case. As one juror summed up much of the public sentiment at the time, ”I think there were people higher up who gave him the authority to do a lot of things, and then when he got caught out there high and dry, no one came to help him.”

And in any event, he had already won the case in the court of public opinion, based on his dramatic televised testimony before the select congressional committee investigating the scandal. “Olliemania” began to sweep the nation, with tribute songs and bumper stickers supporting him. A vast majority of Americans who responded to a TIME poll said they believed North, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was only doing what he was told and had become a scapegoat.

“North has already proved that he is almost dangerously gifted at the persuasive arts,” TIME noted, describing the spell that the “superstar” cast over Americans in a July 20, 1987, cover story:

He was adorable and dangerous. The vocabulary was often breezy, almost childish; the diversion of funds to the contras, he said, was a ”neat idea.” He impersonated a sort of G.I. Joe action figure who might have belonged on Saturday morning kids’ television…

North is a natural actor and a conjurer of illusion. His face is an instrument that he plays with an almost unconscious genius. His countenance is dominated by his eyes. Now they are the eyes of a vulnerable child: innocence at risk in a dark forest. Now an indignation rises in them, dark weathers of injured virtue. And an instant later, there comes across the landscape of North‘s face something chilling, a glimpse perhaps of the capacity to kill, and the eyes constrict their apertures a little, taking aim. The altar boy who might charm the nuns could take on ferocities. His voice was low and passionate. It cracked in the affecting way that Jimmy Stewart’s does, although sometimes, with a force of anger behind it, the voice sounded like Kirk Douglas’ in a manic moment.

The Boy Scout and patriot had the nation rooting for him. Charismatic politicians, and demagogues, have always known how to dramatize life as a struggle between black and white, between good and evil. A committee counsel came to ask North about the nearly $14,000 security system he had installed at his suburban Virginia house, a setup that was paid for by Major General Richard Secord. North delivered a magnificent aria in which he described how the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal had targeted him for assassination. He told how Nidal’s group had brutally murdered Natasha Simpson, 11, daughter of an American journalist, in the Christmas 1985 massacre at the Rome airport. ”I have an eleven-year-old daughter,” said North, melodramatically. He offered a challenge. ”I’ll be glad to meet Abu Nidal on equal terms anywhere in the world, O.K.? But I am not willing to have my wife and my four children meet Abu Nidal or his organization on his terms.”

After that performance, the committee for the moment dared not ask about the snow tires that North was said to have purchased using some of the money from the Iranian arms sales.

In the years that followed the dropping of the charges, North put those skills to use as a political commentator. And the NRA could use a leader with North’s gift for spin, at a time when the debate over gun rights and regulations in the United States remains in the spotlight.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com