Tuesday, May 17, 2011

James Stewart: Tangled Webs

The premise of James Stewart's new book, "Tangled Webs," is that lying- specifically lying while under oath or perjury- has become an epidemic. The publicity that I read made it sound like he investigates this phenomena in a sort of academic way- why is this happening, what does it mean, what's going on? But really, the book is a fast-paced, sort of entertaining behind-the-scenes look at four recent blockbuster cases of lying celebrities: Martha Stewart, Libby Gordon, Barry Bonds, and Bernie Madoff. The book reads as four case histories; impeccably researched and eloquently told, but there's very little analysis.

The stories are fascinating, and each present different riffs on why people lie. Martha Stewart presents as a self-centered businesswoman, unwilling to tell the truth if it means sacrificing even a cent of her money or an iota of control. Throughout the controversy, she never shows a shred of contrition for the disregard she shows for the justice system or the people she hurts, and by the end, seems to be one of the liars who truly believes the lies she tells. Jail is no deterrent. Scooter Libby, on the other hand, seems to be an upstanding man, who really believes in his cause, caught in a lie that he can't get out of. It is possible, as well, that he was exceptionally loyal to his boss, Dick Cheney, and just couldn't fathom telling the truth if it meant watching where his reputation unravel, possibly taking Cheney with him. Then there were Barry Bonds and the other athletes caught up with BALCO. Barry Bonds seems like a singularly obnoxious character, which makes his lies unsurprising. He was never going to tell the truth, and didn't really care who was brought down in the process. Finally, Stewart writes about Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme. This lie seems to come down to money. Madoff was living the good life, mostly with money he didn't actually have. The truth would have cost him all of that, and the money was built on two decades of an elaborate set of lies. There was no way to tell even part of the truth.

Stewart makes the point by showing, not telling, that the justice system can't work without people telling the truth, and that celebrities and people at the highest levels of the government don't seem to take telling the truth very seriously. For me, the most telling example was Scooter Libby. Although not surprising, George W Bush said that he fully supported the investigation into the leaking of the name of the CIA agent Valerie Plame, and the leakers (and subsequent liars) would be punished under the full extent of the law. Only, they weren't. The leakers were not punished (Armitage and Rove) and Bush commuted Libby's sentence. The then-President of the United States condoned lying. (OK I know no one is surprised there.) One of the people charged in the BALCO case was a defense lawyer: he leaked confidential grand jury papers to the papers presumably in order to get a mistrial for his client. Libby himself is a lawyer. Even those meant to be upholding justice system are lying.

The question lingering in my head is "why?" Stewart doesn't answer this question. It's clearly not the mission of his book, but I was disappointed, nonetheless. I don't like liars. Honesty is one of my "things"- I feel like it's what makes society work. Sure, everyone says that, I'm guessing even liars. I just don't see the point of it. In Stewart's examples, it helped people keep their money for awhile, or their prestige, or their homerun records. Some of them did it out of loyalty, especially the lesser characters. And maybe some people feel the rules don't apply to them. The justice system doesn't work when you lie, though: Stewart starts out arguing "That a witness will raise his hand, swear to tell the truth, and then do so is a breathtakingly simple proposition on which the entire American legal system rests." It's the honor system. Only the person speaking can really know if they're lying (usually) and only the person lying can know why they're lying. But the whole system fails when they do.