“I think it was a neat idea, and I’m proud of what we accomplished.” As Oliver North looks back on the Iran-Contra Affair, he hardly seems bothered by the fallout for his illegal gun running, or the facts that the scheme became a scandal and he became a scapegoat. Seven years later, in 1994, when the born again Christian North ran for a Virginia Senate seat, he faced what many observers considered long odds, running against Democratic incumbent Chuck Robb and an independent candidate, Marshall Coleman, endorsed by former Republican Senator John Warner. Still, as recorded in A> Perfect Candidate, his campaign received remarkable support, raising over $20 million through a smart direct marketing effort (including direct mail and telemarketing), as well as contributions from major donors.
The campaign itself was raucous, as recounted in R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor’s terrific 1996 documentary, screening 12 June at Stranger Than Fiction, where it will be followed by a Q&A with Van Taylor and film subject Don Baker. On its face a conspicuous tribute to North’s patriotism, the campaign is also a prototype for today’s Tea Party-style populism. “My friends, the Washington insiders call us the little people,” North stumps, “I’ve got news for them: we’re the real people.” He pounds his image as a Marine, aware of threats external and internal: “America is in serious trouble,” North asserts, ““Predators roam our streets. The traditional family, we’re the real endangered species in this country.”
At the time a political reporter for the Washington Post, Baker provides an especially trenchant view of the campaign’s rough and tumble machinations. “He contends that he has never told a lie,” Baker tells the camera while he’s driving to yet another local event. “I don’t buy it.” But the film suggests that the difference between lies and beliefs is hard to parse. Baker speaks with a DAR member, who says of the Confederate flag, “That flag is a part of our history, and I think that flag should be flown if people want it flown. What the minority race seems to forget is that the Civil War was not fought over race. It was fought over state rights. And the slavery was just a minor part of it. Like I say, you can’t do anything about history.”
A Perfect Candidate suggests otherwise, that history remains in flux, subject to remaking and retelling. North’s own career is a case in point, at once predictable and astonishing. “We’re all caught up in the show, all caught up in the entertainment value of politics,” observes Mark Goodin, one of North’s campaign strategists. “It has a lot to do with dividing. That is different than what it takes to govern, because that is about finding consensus. We are obsessed with getting people elected and we are obsessed with the show.”