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It is early evening in the packed hotel ballroom and a middle-aged man in the back row repeatedly whispers and smiles his admiration.

"God bless you, Ollie," he says. "God Bless you, Ollie."In another row a woman in a conservative suit nudges her friend and confides how lean and fit, despite his ordeal, the speaker looks tonight.

Oliver North, his baleful eyes scanning the room, talks this night on "Commitment, Trust and Family." He says nothing about the case that brings him to the speaker's platform - his indictment in the Iran-Contra scandal.

The former Marine lieutenant colonel and one-time aide to the National Security Council alternately takes the audience on a Marine jungle patrol in Vietnam, praises Old Glory and preaches old values.

North weaves into the speech a subtle defense of his own actions and stings the news media - to appreciative nods.

"America is a country that believes a person ought to get a fair chance, despite what the media suggests," he says.

This is classic Ollie North lecture circuit talk - at $25,000 a pop.

North owes staggering legal fees - estimated from $1 million to $2 million - to the Washington law firm of Williams and Connolly. Until a federal judge last August canceled the date, North was to face trial this week on criminal conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges flowing from the Iran-Contra affair.

The trial hasn't been rescheduled and defense lawyers decline to discuss the case.

Since retiring from the Marine Corps last May, North has made 25 speeches and is booked for an additional 25 through the Washington Speakers Bureau Inc. Each is tailored by speechwriter Ben Elliott for the specific audience.

"We've sent him to every part of the country," said Bernie Swaim, owner of the bureau. "It's like therapy. Nobody ever says a bad word to him."

At the Washington hotel, as elsewhere, flag wavers mixed with the merely curious. Closely watched by bodyguards, they line up for autographs.

"He's packed them in wherever he's been - liberals, conservatives or whatever," Swaim observed. "It doesn't matter what they think politically; they come to hear him."

North travels with bodyguards, either by charter jet or first class on commercial carriers.

He checks into hotels under an assumed name, his guards nearby. Federal prosecutors have said North was targeted for assassination by Libyan agents for his role in the U.S. bombing raid on Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986.

North, through the speaker's bureau, has agreed to endorse 12 Republican congressional candidates. But he isn't campaigning for the presidential ticket.

In his speeches, North dwells on his 20 years in the Marines. He blames U.S. failure in Vietnam on "failure in leadership." And he suggests the news media have discredited the American fighting man.

"They fought and they bled and they died in the mud because they believed in what they were doing," he says of Vietnam veterans.