Sometimes it feels as though the current moment in American history is unique. At other times, there’s a disquieting déjà vu—for example, this week, when Daniel Ortega, the Nicaragua Sandinista leader, and Ollie North, the American Marine who funneled weapons to his right-wing opponents, the Contras, are both in the news.
Ortega, now president once again, is holding on for bare political life amid protests in his country. North, it turns out, is about to take over another controversial, oft-protested body: The National Rifle Association announced Monday that North will be its next president.
From a certain angle, North’s ascension is a peculiar choice for the NRA, both given the current political moment and given North’s own history. North came to national prominence in the Iran-Contra affair, in which the U.S. illegally sold weapons to Iran—violating an arms embargo—then funneled the proceeds to the Contras, who were fighting Ortega’s left-wing government. North, a Vietnam veteran, was then a lieutenant colonel serving on the National Security Council. He was charged with various felonies related to Iran-Contra and convicted of three. The New York Times editorial board tartly panned his verdict: “Oliver North won’t go to prison even though he lied to Congress, shredded White House documents and accepted a $14,000 security fence from an Iran-contra arms profiteer.” As it turned out, North’s convictions were reversed and vacated altogether because a judge ruled that the prosecution had used testimony North offered Congress under an immunity agreement.
In 1994, North ran for U.S. Senate in Virginia, where he proved a formidable fundraiser but a divisive candidate, and lost to incumbent Chuck Robb, helped by a third-party candidate who was endorsed by Senator John Warner, a Republican. Since then, he’s been active in conservative activist circles.
North’s appointment spawned an immediate round of very similar jokes—he’s a perfect fit for the NRA, since he’s got lots of experience facilitating gun sales, har har har—as well as some consternation at why the NRA would choose an obviously tarnished figure like North, especially at a moment when the organization is under even more political pressure than usual following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the aftermath of which has launched the largest protest movement for gun restrictions in years.
The NRA’s éminence grise is Wayne LaPierre, its longtime executive vice president, while the presidency is a more ceremonial post. Still, the group hasn’t shied away from controversial presidents in the past. The most notable in recent memory is Charlton Heston, who served for five years and delivered the famous quip that Al Gore could have his gun when he took it “from my cold, dead hands.” A more recent president, Jim Porter, called Barack Obama a “fake president” and referred to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.” (The NRA’s first president, Ambrose Burnside, led troops in the Union Army against the treasonous rebellion.)
This is not merely chance. Warning about gun-grabbers riles up NRA members. As I wrote in February, after a LaPierre stemwinder full of controversial and dubious points just days after Parkland, it’s a consistent strategy for the group. LaPierre does something like this almost every year, setting off a predictable cycle: People get outraged; someone says LaPierre has gone too far; but LaPierre holds up the backlash against him as proof that they (the media, the government, whomever) is out for their guns and rallies the base with it. LaPierre has recognized that in these post-violence moments, in which there are new calls for gun control, all the NRA needs to do is maintain the status quo. A vocal and energized minority of the population is sufficient to do that, even though vast majorities of Americans support at least some minor forms of gun control, like stricter background checks. The NRA pursues a similarly provocative strategy in its online messaging, most recently in the person of spokeswoman Dana Loesch.
North, as a veteran culture warrior, is perfectly fitted to this strategy. Because of his Iran-Contra connections, he also makes for a perfect Trump-era martyr. His champions viewed him as a victim of the deep state, long before anyone in the U.S. used the phrase, and of a special prosecutor overstepping his bounds.
After Parkland, it seemed like the seemingly unshakeable stalemate on gun laws was trembling. The power of the Parkland students as advocates for stricter gun laws is remarkable, but so far they have few concrete victories to point to, and their staying power is unknown. In March, Florida added a few new gun regulations that the NRA opposed, but the changes are modest, and also included an NRA-backed idea to allow teachers to carry guns.
Days after LaPierre’s comments in Florida, President Trump demanded stronger gun-control laws, suggested taking guns from people without due process, and mocked lawmakers for being afraid of the NRA. But the president quickly backed off those comments and hasn’t continued to push for controls. He did, however, appear at the NRA convention in Dallas last week, as did Vice President Pence. At the moment, LaPierre’s post-Parkland strategy seems to have worked. The NRA has found its true north in provocation, so it’s only logical they’d find Ollie North, too.
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