Politics

Oliver North, From Iran-Contra to the NRA

In long career, former White House staffer also ran for Senate in Virginia

Oliver North, a former staffer with the National Security Council under President Ronald Reagan, will be the new president of the NRA. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Oliver North, the retired Marine lieutenant colonel known for his role in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal, will become president of the National Rifle Association of America within weeks, the gun rights organization said Monday.

North, a longtime member of the NRA board of directors and a former Senate candidate in Virginia, plans to immediately leave his role as a commentator for Fox News.

“This is the most exciting news for our members since Charlton Heston became President of our Association,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said in a news release, referring to the late actor who served as the group’s president from 1998 to 2003. “Oliver North is a legendary warrior for American freedom, a gifted communicator and skilled leader. In these times, I can think of no one better suited to serve as our President.”

The NRA presidency, according to its IRS forms, is an unpaid gig. By contrast, LaPierre made $1.4 million running the organization in 2016, according to the NRA’s tax form. The group’s total revenue was $61 million that year.

LaPierre has long been the face of the NRA, appearing often on TV and Capitol Hill in defense of Second Amendment rights and the organization.

At the NRA, North replaces Pete Brownell who, according to the gun rights group, planned to devote his “full time and energy to his family business” and therefore did not seek a second term. Brownell is CEO of Brownells Inc., a supplier of firearms accessories. He took over as NRA president last year from Allan Cors.

North, 74, was convicted for his role during the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra scandal, which involved U.S. officials arranging the sale of arms to Iran, despite an embargo, in order to raise funds to help the Contras in Nicaragua while negotiating for the release of American hostages. North’s conviction was overturned.

He went on to become a leading figure among conservatives and was frequently talked up as a candidate for office.

Close-up of Sen. Oliver Laurence North, R-Vi. July 1994 (Photo by Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call)
North speaks on the campaign trail in July 1994. (Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Political setback 

In 1994, North took on Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb in Virginia. Robb had significant baggage. A grand jury investigated, but did not ultimately indict him, over an incident in which his staffers shared a surreptitiously taped phone conversation of a political rival, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. He also had faced questions about an alleged extramarital encounter (he was, and is still married, to Lynda Bird Johnson) with a former Miss Virginia.

And 1994 was shaping up as a very good year for Republicans.

North had a national profile in conservative circles, in which he was portrayed as a tough-talking champion of a hawkish U.S. posture across the world.

But he had problems of his own, with Iran-Contra continuing to be an issue, even after his convictions in the scandal were vacated in 1991. His recollections about what President Ronald Reagan knew and when he knew it found their way into the conversation, with even the former president expressing frustration about North.

North came up short against Robb, who prevailed 46 percent to 43 percent, one of the lone bits of good news for Democrats on what was a long night for them as the GOP won majorities in the Senate and House.

He went on to a career in conservative talk radio, which enabled him to stay in the political world, leading up to his position at Fox News.

01/28/98.OLLIE NORTH RADIO SHOW--Oliver North during his show the day after President Clinton's State of the Union Address..CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY PHOTO BY SCOTT J. FERRELL.
North during his show the day after President Bill Clinton’s 1998 State of the Union address.(Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

‘Extraordinary times’

“I am honored to have been selected by the NRA Board to soon serve as this great organization’s President,” North said in a news release. “I appreciate the board initiating a process that affords me a few weeks to set my affairs in order, and I am eager to hit the ground running as the new NRA President.”

Brownell said in a letter, according to the news release, that LaPierre had suggested they reach out to North.

“Wayne and I feel that in these extraordinary times, a leader with his history as a communicator and resolute defender of the Second Amendment is precisely what the NRA needs,” Brownell said.

LaPierre added that “Oliver North is, hands down, the absolute best choice to lead our NRA Board, to fully engage with our members, and to unflinchingly stand and fight for the great freedoms he has defended his entire life.”

Big spending

The NRA spent $891,000 on federal lobbying in the first three months of the year, including to outside firms such as Crossroads Strategies, according to disclosures filed with Congress. That time frame included the Feb. 14 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, which has prompted nationwide demonstrations for new gun control measures.

Its lobbying issues this year included a bill that would allow concealed-carry reciprocity for individuals who are allowed to carry concealed handguns in one state. The organization also lobbied on a Senate bill that would improve compliance with the nationwide background checks system. Some of those provisions became law as part of the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending package.

The gun lobby spent nearly $5 million on lobbying in 2017.

The NRA is also a top outside spender on electioneering messages, dishing out more than $1.7 million in outside spending so far in the 2018 cycle, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The organization has made more than $350,000 in campaign contributions so far this cycle, the center found.

Other members of the NRA’s board of directors include Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform; rock musician Ted Nugent; and actor Tom Selleck, among others.

The NRA, established in 1871, counts 5 million members — offering it a grass-roots network that serves as the crux of the group’s political power.

Jason Dick contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.