IF you were storming a hill in Vietnam, Ollie North would be just the kind of guy you would want beside you. Stained with mud and sweat, he would single-mindedly pursue the objective, oblivious to cost and damage. If you were picking your way through the tangled political jungles of Washington, Oliver North would be the kind of political operative you would want to keep an uneasy eye on. In more subtle and sophisticated settings, that single-minded commitment could, and did, become a menace.
Colonel North has been telling his story this week. He gripped audiences in Europe and other continents. He affected the stock market. He caused the White House - so they say - to turn off all its television sets. Marvel of marvels, the Ollie Show on Capitol Hill even preempted some of the soap operas.
But it was a sad story that emerged, one of a can-do, gung-ho, middle-level military officer out of his depth in waters of extraordinary complexity.
North was first brought to the White House in a very junior role. That role expanded in an incredible manner. He should have been subject to close direction and restraint. Instead he was left unbridled. That is a commentary on the weakness of those he served.
On the battlefield, North's directness in achieving an objective may have been an asset. In Washington, his inability to work within a system of carefully constructed constitutional checks and balances proved his downfall.
Sen. Sam Nunn says sadly that in trying to pursue democracy abroad, North abandoned it at home.
When Congress cut off military aid to the Nicaraguan contras, North thought Congress had made the wrong decision. That is a fair enough conclusion. He may have been right. But he was wrong to refuse to heed that directive. If the United States is to remain a country where the rule of law is to prevail, we cannot have lieutenant colonels taking it into their own hands.
The structure of checks and balances built into the Constitution is often ponderously frustrating. Congress sometimes does make wrong decisions. Sometimes it corrects them later. Some congressmen are distressingly opportunistic - and have been so in the case of Central America.
I well remember the initial wave of congressional negativism over the US military operation into Grenada. Such congressmen as Gerry Studds bemoaned all this as something akin to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; 24 hours later, Congress was singing a very different tune. What happened? Ask Howard Baker, then a senator, now White House chief of staff. What happened, he says, is that Congress initially got it wrong, then heard from the people, who widely supported the Grenada action.
Secretary of State George Shultz has probably spent more time padding up to Capitol Hill than any other Cabinet secretary. He has been put on the spot, interrogated, cross-examined, and sometimes obstructed. He as much as anybody has a right to feel frustrated. But he sees dealing with Congress as a major part of his job. His patience stems from genuine respect for the checks and balances built into the system. You cannot, he believes, end-run Congress. That view is worth heeding, because Mr. Shultz has become a kind of moral strong man in the Reagan administration.
North, flashing his gap-toothed grin at his interrogators this week, may as an individual have charmed some television viewers. But the self-righteousness of some in the White House that he symbolized is the first step down the slippery road to dictatorship.