Almost reverently, they stood in line. In their hands were clutched the oversize volumes of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver L. North's best-selling memoir, Under Fire. Blissfully, they withstood an early morning downpour while waiting patiently for their hero to arrive at a place in Tempe called Books Etc.

"I fell in love with him during the hearings," a heavy-set woman said to her neighbor in line. "He's a great American . . . a simply great American." A man wearing a blue cap with a United States Navy insignia above the bill nodded: "They just don't make men like Ollie North anymore." Two young men who obviously did not agree sat near the entrance to Books Etc. They held signs that read, "Treason Should Not Pay." A man who might have been nearing 70 glared down at them.

"I know what I'd like to do to those two little bastards," the man said. People all around him in the line nodded approval at this show of patriotic decisiveness.

Many of those standing in the line, which stretched the length of the shopping center, seemed total strangers to the inner workings of bookstores. They were the kind of crowd you normally see at Wal-Mart or K Mart. These were real-American types, not effete snobs looking for a book of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke or even the latest by Norman Mailer or John Updike.

This was the biggest crowd I had seen drawn to an autographing party since Howard Cosell's I Never Played the Game, during the height of his fame as a Monday Night Football expert.

This crowd didn't care about books, but they did know about money. Many managed to save almost $10 on the price of North's book by purchasing their volumes previously at the Price Club.

Some had two books under their arms. Some had as many as three. The extras would be Christmas presents to other patriots, of course.

North, the hero of the Iran-contra hearings, stood on a raised platform at the rear of Books Etc. He was guarded by four uniformed police officers.

His appearance in Tempe was scheduled to last 90 minutes. He would leave promptly at 12:30 p.m. and head for the airport for more autographing sessions in Los Angeles in the afternoon and evening.

"Because of the limited time and the size of the crowd," Joe McKersie, the manager of Books Etc., kept repeating, "have your book turned to the first white page." The people in line nervously obeyed.

I was surprised to see that North's face was much more sallow than it appeared on television. Instead of a marine uniform bedecked with ribbons, he wore a blue cardigan sweater and a blue button-down shirt without a tie.

North grinned relentlessly throughout his entire appearance. To any fan who spoke to him, he had a friendly but banal reply. It was an unsettling scene. There was so much pent-up excitement and deference and homage built into this crowd. They all wanted to get close to him, to gaze upon him with adoration.

People with cameras kept jumping on boxes and chairs to snap North's picture.

I got a good look at several North autographs. It was disappointing. North had scrawled his name so hastily that no one would be able to tell later who had written it. But none of the gulled seemed to mind.

What is this all about?
Oliver North is traveling the country in this book-selling campaign which, it is projected, will make him more than a million dollars and move his book to the dizzying heights of the New York Times best-seller list.

Wherever North goes, the crowds are huge. He made an appearance in Phoenix at Houle Books at Uptown Plaza the night before his Tempe stop.

Peter Barbee, Houle's owner, says that when North arrived, the line stretched all the way around the Sugar Bowl at the end of the shopping center.

North signed an estimated 1,300 books in two hours. Of these, only 800 were purchased at Houle's. The rest were carried in by North's fans from the Price Club.

The crowds have been like this at every stop. It doesn't matter if it's Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles or Miami. Every town in this country has its solid core of people who grew to love Ollie North while watching him on television deceive a Senate committee for six magical days several summers ago.

It is, of course, phenomenal. Here is our new idol, a wise guy with the demeanor of an altar boy, who used the Fifth Amendment in the same way as a drug dealer or a member of the Mafia.

North illegally shredded government documents. He was a key figure in aiding and abetting the obstruction of Congress. And like any cheap politician, he accepted a $13,875 security fence as an illegal gratuity.

He now claims to be totally cleared merely because the federal courts let him slip through what became the loophole of the Fifth Amendment.

"Lying does not come easy to me," North once said. "We all have to weigh in the balance the difference between lies and lies." Arthur Liman, the chief counsel of the Iran-contra committee, is one of the few who didn't fall under North's spell. Here is what Liman told Haynes Johnson of the Washington Post for his book, Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years. "People like North are bond salesmen," Liman said. "They believe in what they sell and ultimately they go broke because they buy it themselves.

"North was not the zealot he pretended to be. He could have worked for any White House and did exactly what he had done for Ronald Reagan." Liman remembered the final day of North's questioning before the Iran-contra committee.

Liman arrived early to the committee room that day. When the lawyer walked in, he was astonished to see what appeared to be the entire Senate police force lined up in front of the chamber.

There was a photographer and in the center of the police officers, like a president, stood Ollie North. Liman watched dumbfounded. Then, one by one, each member of the police force stepped forward to shake North's hand and have the act recorded by the photographer.

Senators who knew North before the hearing, like William Cohen of Maine, remember what he was like. He was always cocky, always a self-confident and cynical manipulator.

That was the swashbuckling North everyone expected to appear before the committee.

Cohen and his fellow Republicans were astonished to see the new Oliver North. As Cohen has said:

"He was suddenly soulful, and his face wore an expression of pain and sorrow. He was the wounded warrior who was willing--as he said--to take the spear in his own chest for any mistakes that had been made." North is still playing the same manipulative game. I rank him, along with Jimmy Swaggart and J. Fife Symington III, as among the great charlatans of our time.

North's first grand performance kept him out of prison. This latest star-turn is making his book into a million-dollar property.

I walked through the deep puddles that had formed in the Tempe shopping center during the early morning rain.

Colonel North was still smiling and autographing copies of his book back there inside the bookstore.

Under Fire was ghosted for North by William Novak, the same writer who made a best-selling author out of the greasy Lee Iacocca.

That book made a lot of money for Iacocca, but he is still a phony front man for an inferior car company.

North will make his bundle, too. And he is an even bigger mountebank than Iacocca.

"I fell in love with him during the hearings," a heavy-set woman said to her neighbor in line.

These were real-American types, not effete snobs looking for a book of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke.

People with cameras kept jumping on boxes and chairs to snap North's picture.

North's first grand performance kept him out of prison. This latest star- turn is turning his book into a million-dollar property.

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Tom Fitzpatrick