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Why We Love to Souffle Martha

Above all else, this nation just can't stand phonies.

July 07, 2002|ERIC DEZENHALL

She's blond. She smiles and cooks. Martha Stewart is certainly a damsel, and there's no doubt she's in serious distress. Why, then, is the public taking such glee in casting her as a villain?

In the soap-opera love affairs that the nation has with its celebrities, the downfall of a star is more fascinating than the ascent to fame. But while few people could detail exactly what Wall Street shenanigans Stewart may have been up to, lots of folks have already convicted her of a far worse crime: phoniness. Sure, she may act sweet when the cameras are on, we say to ourselves, but in private she sharpens her knives for more than just cabbage--carving up anyone, including her underlings, who get in her way.

But if Americans can't stand phonies, we sure do love our straight shooters. Tell it like it is, shed all pretense, and Americans will draw you to their bosom. There was no better example of that than all of the tributes to the late gangster John Gotti last month. News outlets far and wide carried images of oversized flower arrangements piled at his funeral.

That's because Gotti never pretended to be anything other than what he was: a flashy wiseguy. Murder? Extortion? Gambling? Whaddya expect? He was a goodfella! And, boy, that camel-hair coat looked great.

Let's review. Martha Stewart called her broker and made a killing. John Gotti called a hit man and made a killing. Martha, marauded. Gotti, applauded.

If that sounds like the preview for a Broadway musical, you're following along. That's because American public life has become a theatrical production, and when the characters don't play their expected roles they're going to hear it from the audience. Commonly mentioned in the obituary praise for Gotti was the idea that he was a master of courting the media. But how did he really do that? Mob bosses, after all, don't have PR men. The answer is that he was, ultimately, just himself. What you saw was what you got. No spin, no press releases and, unlike Stewart, certainly no Mob Living magazine. Combine that with a contempt for authority and you have a classic American antihero, one that we have instinctively loved and cheered for since the days of the Wild West. No, even before that. After all, what were the founding fathers but outlaws who scoffed at the establishment and fought to set up their own gig?

We reserve such special contempt for white-collar villains because they operate from inside the system--that is to say, in the shadows. Back rooms, smoke-filled boardrooms and private jets are the settings where we imagine the fat cats are getting one over on the rest of us. And when we catch one of them at it--aha!--cue the TV lights, 'cause it's show time.

Trying to weasel out of the charges only makes it worse. When Gotti was tried, he strode proudly up the courthouse steps and thumbed his nose at the government. Many secretly rooted for him, and some openly cheered. But when Stewart told CBS that she would rather concentrate on making a salad, jaws dropped. The same thing happened when Enron chief Kenneth Lay's wife went on national television and became weepy that she might lose one of her vacation homes. Examples abound, yet for all the public outrage, Americans never seem to tire of seeing this same drama play out.

Gary Condit hasn't been convicted of any crime or even charged with one. But his career is in ruins and he is a permanent figure of public scorn. That's because the public found him guilty--of hypocritical behavior, of using his position to weasel advantages. He held himself up to be a pillar of the community while he was anything but. After that, his blow-dry haircut and toothy smile became like a mask of treachery.

He paid real consequences, and probably too will Lay, Stewart and the other corporate bigwigs--regardless of whether they're ever convicted of any crime. Because in this country, you might get away with cheating, but hypocrisy will get you whacked.


Eric Dezenhall is the author of "Money Wanders" (St. Martin's/Dunne, 2002) and "Nail 'Em: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities & Businesses" (Prometheus, 1999).

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