In November 1986, U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Colonel Oliver North was fired by President Ronald Reagan from his position at the National Security Council for his involvement in the Iran-contra scandal. Iran-contra involved selling weapons, via intermediaries, to Iran and using the funds from these sales to finance the Nicaraguan resistance then trying to overthrow a left-leaning government. After testifying before Congress in the summer of 1987, North was indicted the following year on 16 felony counts, including accepting illegal gratuities, aiding and abetting the obstruction of a congressional inquiry, and destroying documents and evidence. Although he was convicted on three counts, his conviction was overturned on appeal on the basis that jurors had been influenced by the congressional hearings, during which he had been granted immunity for his testimony. During the nationally televised hearings, North admitted that he had shredded documents, lied to Congress, and violated, or at least come exceedingly close to violating, a law prohibiting giving aid to the Nicaraguan resistance.
But Oliver North knew how to act and speak with power. These abilities would produce an amazing effect on his reputation and his subsequent career. North defended himself and his actions by appealing to a higher purpose—protecting American interests, saving American lives, protecting important U.S. intelligence secrets, following the orders of his superiors, and doing what he was told to do as a good Marine lieutenant colonel—in short, being a good soldier. North wore his ribbon-decorated uniform to the hearings, even though he was seldom if ever in uniform at his job at the NSC. He took responsibility for what he did, saying that he was “not embarrassed” about his actions or about appearing to explain them. And he asserted that he had controlled what had occurred, frequently using phrases such as “I told” and “I caused.” This phrasing demonstrated that he was not running away from what he had done. Observers watching people who don’t deny or run away from their actions naturally presume that the perpetrators don’t feel guilty or ashamed, so maybe no one should be too upset. This phrasing also communicated power, that North was in charge rather than a “victim” of circumstance.
Only seven years after this incident, using the celebrity and sympathy that his testimony created, Oliver North ran for the U.S. Senate from Virginia and lost by just 3 percent of the vote to the incumbent, Charles Robb. During that campaign, North raised some $16 million through direct-mail solicitations, making him the top recipient of direct-mail political funds in the United States that year. Today, North, author of several books, is a television commentator on Fox News and a well-paid speaker at both public and private organizations. And even at the time of the hearings, he enjoyed a positive image. The Wall Street Journal asked dozens of senior U.S. executives if they would hire Oliver North. “The majority said they would…. A poll of the general public reflected the bullishness on Col. North…56 percent of those surveyed said they would hire Col. North; 35 percent said they wouldn’t hire him and 9 percent weren’t sure.”1
Donald Kennedy, a biology professor and former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, served as president of Stanford University. Kennedy got caught up in a scandal over indirect costs in the early 1990s. Because it is impossible to associate all the costs of running any organization, for instance, the water and power, police and fire protection, and infrastructure such as libraries, with specific research projects, research grants have an overhead rate that reflects these costs. That rate is then charged to the government for all contracts. In the case of Stanford and other research universities, the claim was that unallowable charges, for instance, for lobbying, liquor, a yacht used by the sailing club, silverware and furniture for the president’s house, and other items, had been included in the cost pools used for calculating the overhead rate.2 After several years of investigation, litigation, and audits, the government found no basis for its claim. Stanford agreed to pay just $1.2 million to the government for overcharges for over 18,000 research grants covering the fiscal years from 1981 to 1992 that involved hundreds of millions of dollars in total funds.3
After the brouhaha broke, Kennedy, like North, appeared before a congressional investigating committee. Donald Kennedy’s performance could not have been more different from North’s. North appeared at the witness stand with just his attorney. Kennedy came with a team that included the head of government contracts from the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, the controller and assistant controller from the university, and the chairman of the board of trustees, James Gaither. This coterie of colleagues conveyed the image that Kennedy could not answer the questions on his own. Using long, convoluted sentences full of subordinate clauses, answering questions indirectly, admitting that he was “embarrassed,” and looking extremely uncomfortable, Kennedy made a weak impression—he looked guilty. He left his position as Stanford president soon thereafter.
The differences between Oliver North’s and Donald Kennedy’s presentations may have had little to do with personality or individual style. Kennedy was not only a distinguished scientist but a successful and effective teacher; he had testified in front of Congress numerous times before, and many people watching his testimony who knew him say he seemed like a different person. He came to the hearings prepared, as did North. What differed was how they chose to present themselves, how they decided to act, and the impression they made. Kennedy wanted to express contrition; North chose to convey incredulity—how could he be questioned?—and some righteous anger. As we will see later in this chapter, expressing anger is usually much more effective than expressing sadness, guilt, or remorse in being seen as powerful.
We choose how we will act and talk, and those decisions are consequential for acquiring and holding on to power.
I think the sociopath has a natural advantage in acting without shame, because we don't react the same way to other people's sense of moral outrage. Not that sociopaths have the monopoly on shamelessness, but I do think it is one of our more potent weapons in getting away with things and getting what we want.