On the road with North's slides
Wichita Falls, Texas — The slides that Oliver North was not allowed to show on Capitol Hill are beginning to make their way to screens across the country. Several dozen congressmen, mostly conservative Republicans, have received copies of the slides and are expected to use them as a means of solidifying public support for the contra cause.
President Reagan is expected to ask Congress in September for up to $140 million in renewed assistance to the anti-Sandinista rebels to cover the duration of his administration.
``We can't let the fervor die down,'' says Republican Rep. Beau Boulter of Texas. Congressman Boulter says Lt. Col. North's recent testimony before the congressional Iran-contra panel provided the ``rallying point'' contra supporters needed to interest the American public in their cause. ``We have to seize this opportunity,'' he asserts.
On Monday night Boulter used his set of the Colonel North slides and the text of North's congressional narration to open a two-hour discussion of US policy on Nicaragua in this north Texas city. The meeting was moved when more people turned out than anticipated. But even a 500-seat auditorium could not accommodate the mostly pro-contra audience.
The 57 slides, which purport to document a Soviet buildup in Nicaragua and the threat that poses to Central America and the United States, were used by North to build support for private aid for the contras at a time when Congress had cut off US government assistance.
``I can assure you we'll be able to dim the lights,'' Boulter said just before the slide show, in an obvious reference to the Iran-contra panel's decision not to show the slides, ostensibly because lights in the hearing chamber could not be dimmed enough for pictures to show up on television.
A State Department expert on Nicaragua, James Lewis, also was present at Boulter's request. Mr. Lewis answered some of the questions from the audience.
Boulter's presentation was thought to be the first showing of the North slides to a large audience, although Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California showed them at a breakfast meeting and to members of the press in his district earlier on Monday. But such slide shows could become about as common as Oliver North T-shirts over the next month.
The Republican Conference, a congressional group led by Rep. Richard Cheney (R) of Wyoming, a member of the Iran-contra panel, has already supplied more than 60 sets of the slides to conference members.
``My guess would be that a lot of [the conference members] will be doing similar public presentations during the August recess,'' says conference staff member Kim McKernan.
Boulter said he expects to meet with a number of pro-contra members of Congress within a week to ``map out a strategy'' for taking the ``facts about Soviet involvement in Nicaragua'' to the American public.
In addition, the American Security Council, a Washington-based anticommunist organization that focuses on national-security issues, has discussed preparing sets of the slides for public dissemination.
Supporters of the contras say the slides are a valuable asset because they give strong evidence of a growing Soviet presence in Nicaragua.
``Most people don't care much about a civil war between the contras and the Sandinistas,'' says John Palafoutas, chief of staff for Representative Hunter, ``but no matter what side of the fence you're on, you may get a little nervous seeing communists and Soviet military hardware so close to home.''
Most of the Wichita Falls audience obviously agreed with that outlook. But others did not jump on the contra bandwagon.
Two Air Force recruits from nearby Sheppard Air Force Base, who declined to give their names, said the slides were undercut by their obvious bias. ``They made a big deal about reconnaissance missions against us, but they failed to point out that we do the very same thing,'' said one.
John Hirschi, a member of the Wichita Falls City Council, referring to a slide that showed increased economic aid to Nicaragua from the Soviet Union, noted, ``It's very clear: You go where your bread and butter is.'' He also said many of the slides actually concerned activity in Cuba, ``so why not worry more about them instead of Nicaragua?''
Others expressed reservations about the contras. One man who had recently visited Nicaragua said he had found disenchantment with the Sandinistas, but that ``opposition to the Sandinistas does not equal support for the contras.''
Dan Stewart, a grocer from Olney, Texas, said he is against further aid to the contras, even though ``I don't want a communist stronghold down there. But if you don't agree with these people,'' he added, ``they think that's what you want.''
Just how much meetings like Congressman Boulter's may sway public opinion remains to be seen. In many cases, as with the Wichita Falls discussion, conservative Republican members of Congress taking the contra cause to their districts are efforts to convert the faithful. Despite increased support for the contras nationwide, polls continue to show more Americans opposed to further aid. And most congressional leaders still believe renewed aid, after the current $100 million runs out, is much in doubt.
``I admit it hangs in the balance,'' says Boulter, adding a vote today in the Senate would probably be 15-to-20 votes short of approving aid.