Retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North was greeted with a standing applause welcome at a Republican rally Friday night at a rally at Murray State University.
The Lakeland GOP rally organizers say more than 300 people attended the event, walking past a crowd of protesters into Lovett Auditorium, where a large U.S. flag extended across the stage. The "Night Before Fancy Farm" was hosted by the Calloway and Marshall Republican parties and was one of several political rallies across the west Kentucky region ahead of the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County, which kicks off the election season in the commonwealth.
The organizers of the protest outside said they felt it was insensitive to bring North, a National Rifle Association leader, to a region that experienced two deadly school shootings: at Heath High School in 1997 in McCracken County and at Marshall County High School in January. The organizers were from the latter and were joined by a veterans group and other supporters.
North was named the president of the NRA in early May. The gun-rights advocacy group said upon the announcement that he would begin “within a few weeks.” The appointment also coincided with his retirement as a contributor to Fox News. At the start of his speech on Friday, North described himself as the "next" president and chided media for "fake news" because he is not currently the president. Rather, he said he is "supposed to become" the 66th president.
When he was first contacted about the event in Murray, North said he learned it was being organized by a "judge in Kentucky" (referring to Marshall Co. Judge-Executive Kevin Neal, who introduced North). He said he joked with a person who presented the opportunity, "that I don't have a really good relationship with a lot of judges. Last time I was close to a judge, the session began with 'The defendant will now rise.'"
North is infamous for his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. As NPR has reported, he was convicted of three felonies for his role in the U.S. government's operation to secretly sell weapons to Iran and used the funds to support the Contras in Nicaragua. A federal judge overturned those convictions in 1990.
After describing his grandkids, North said his focus is on them "growing up in a country that needs help" and wants them to grow up knowing the merits of public service and knowing the cost of freedom. "I know in this era of instant downloads and it's all about me, me, me and entitlements and the like, that's sometimes hard for young people to understand," he said.
"There's also a lot in those media elites and some in political office who no longer think it's appropriate, it's not necessary in a post-modern world," North said, of people who stand for the flag and put their hands over their hearts during the National Anthem. "They're somehow viewed by many of them as archaic or even irrelevant. Perhaps that's because so few in this day in age, unlike when I was a youngster, have ever seen their comrades in arms with that red, white and blue banner draped over their transfer case."
"I don't believe that patriotism or saluting the flag or standing up for it, whether it's in the hallowed ground of a cemetery or in a football field is somehow a flaw. I think that's a virtue that we need to see more of in America," North said to applause.
North is referencing multiple NFL players, beginning with former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick in 2016, kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality against people of color. The protest has been interpreted by President Trump and others as disrespecting the flag and its American symbolism.
North said, "The keepers of the flame of freedom in America today are members of the Republican Party all across this land." He added that the party was founded on the idea of individual freedom. Referencing the Civil War, he said to applause, "The foundation of the Republican Party was the elimination of human bondage." He said Republicans at every level of government have "become the protectors of the individual liberties that we claim as birthrights."
North, citing "surveys," said 65% of schools in the U.S. recorded one or more incidents of violent, criminal behavior over the last five years. (See data from the National Center for Education Statistics.) He said banks, airports, office buildings and sports stadiums are better protected than schools. “That ought to be unacceptable to every American,” he said. “Our most precious resource, our children, aren’t as well protected as the halls of Congress. As a jewelry store. As a train station. As an airport.”
He said protecting children in classrooms should be a national imperative. He said something different needs to be done to protect kids from shootings like the one at Marshall County High School in January.
Touting the NRA program ‘National School Shield’, North said the free program offers discreet, consultation and grants to schools in helping to design security solutions. He said the evaluations offer suggestions that go beyond arming teachers. He also described the 'Eddie Eagle' program, designed to teach young children to not touch a gun if they come across one.
North presented a check of $500 to the Marshall County Republican Party. He called on members of the audience to match the check and 15 pledged to do, effectively raising $8000.
Following his speech, Lt. Col Oliver North received an honorary promotion to 'colonel'. State Rep. Kenny Imes presented him with a Kentucky Colonel certificate on behalf of Governor Matt Bevin and the leadership of the Kentucky General Assembly. He was also named an honorary “Duke of Hazard” by the Mayor of Hazard, Kentucky (presented by Imes) and a member of the Lakeland GOP Coleman Riley Society.