By Robert Scott
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If you were a Midshipman at the Naval Academy fifty-fouryears ago as I was, you would be familiar with what was called a “Smoker,” one of the most celebrated intramural athletic events of the season. It was called that because smoking cigarettes, allowed in the dormitory but forbidden in most public settings for reasons of decorum rather than of health, was allowed for the spectators – almost all of whom were Midshipmen, with a few Company Officers and other supervisors thrown in. The big event was the Brigade Boxing Finals among those with a lot more pugilistic talent than I ever had, marking the end of a weeks-long tournament that was really about street fighting. In 1968, two of my classmates faced off against one another: Midn 1/C Oliver North and Midn 1/C Jim Webb. They were destined for careers that intertwined for decades afterward.
The most telling of that intertwining was brought about by the Iran-Contra scandal eighteen years later. A Navy Commander and ship Commanding Officer, I watched with fascination as the story unfolded. Jim Webb had earned a medical retirement from the Marines after being wounded in Vietnam, had become a congressional staffer for several important Republicans, and was now President Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy. Ollie North had advanced to Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps and found himself working on the National Security Council staff along with Robert “Bud” McFarlane, another academy alumnus who had graduated ten years before we did. I won’t go over all the details of Iran-Contra here; suffice it to say that Ollie admitted to several illegal acts involving selling arms to Iran and sending the funds to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua. Secretary Webb was much senior but in Ollie’s chain of command, and he agreed to Ollie’s prosecution for those acts. Ollie got off on a technicality: he was indicted by a grand jury but given immunity on appeal because he had not been given his rights against self-incrimination in his Congressional testimony. Bud McFarlane’s boss, another Naval Academy Graduate, was retired Vice Admiral John Poindexter; Poindexter was also indicted but, like Ollie, was given immunity for the same reason. Bud, himself a retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel, ended up pleading guilty to four misdemeanor charges. Hewas awarded a $5000 fine and a suspended two-year jail sentence.
A fourth Naval Academy graduate who became involved was then-Senator John McCain. McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner-of-war, was horrified by the entire affair and was disappointed by the immunity given. He was outspoken about the breach of trust evidenced by Poindexter and North; the only one punished was the one who came clean: Bud McFarlane. And this week, I read an obituary; Bud McFarlane passed away quietly at home, at the age of 86.
If any readers are interested in the details of who did what and when, I strongly recommend The Nightingale’s Song, a 1995 book by another USNA alumnus, Robert Timberg. In it, he highlights the interplay among McCain, McFarlane, Webb, North, and Poindexter. It is a fascinating book. The two whom the book holds up as model characters are John McCain, who became his party’s Presidential candidate in 2008; and Jim Webb, who served as U.S. Senator from Virginia, 2007-2013.
In case you are wondering about that 1968 boxing match, Ollie won. He always was the better street fighter.