Earlier this week I had the honor of interviewing Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and author James B. Stewart at the Atlanta History Center as part of the Livingston Lecture series. He was in town to promote his new book TANGLED WEBS which focuses on the perjury epidemic he says is destroying our justice system and four high profile cases that demonstrate just that.
As I began reading the book, I was immediately swept up in the stories of these cases and the lives torn apart by the greedy, egomaniacs we so readily put on pedestals in this country. As I continued reading, I was stunned by the almost comical quality of the lies being told by people who by all accounts are smart and well educated. Martha Stewart, Barry Bonds, Scooter Libby and Bernie Madoff – all featured in the book – were (and probably still are) bad liars. But there’s nothing funny about what these cases represent; a serious threat to our justice system conducted with absolutely no moral or ethical qualms by people we worship. What became clear as I finished the book was that the only problem I would have conducting this interview would be reigning myself in! I was, in fact, so fired up about the work Stewart produced that I felt I could talk about it for weeks instead of the allotted 30-45 minutes.
As with most legal cases, each of the four detailed in TANGLED WEBS took years to unfold and as I watched them in real time, I remember feeling like I was missing crucial bits of the stories (or just not remembering the details from year to year) and wishing I could get a timeline or more detailed account. Stewart provides those details here and what unfolds in each case is at once shocking, infuriating and enlightening.
Martha Stewart committed insider trading out of plain greed and lied to protect her business and personal reputation. Her broker gave her the tip out of a misplaced sense of loyalty and neither of them seemed to have any moral or ethical problem with what they were doing. Barry Bonds was offered complete immunity from prosecution on any charges if he only told the truth. Investigators in his case were interested in prosecuting the drug dealers – not him. But still – he lied – even when the evidence clearly pointed to his steroid use. In both the Martha Stewart and Barry Bonds cases their fans continued (and continue to this day) to support them. As James B. Stewart points out, this only furthers the idea that lying under oath is acceptable.
The Scooter Libby case revolved around the leaking of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity to the press. Again the story is filled with clumsy lying and a clear lack of concern over committing perjury (a felony) at the highest levels of government. Remember, even after saying he would punish any in the White House responsible for the leaks, Bush did nothing. Karl Rove was not reprimanded or fired and though Scooter Libby was convicted on multiple counts Bush (at Cheney’s urging) commuted his sentence. (Though the book doesn’t focus on it, Stewart also remains non-partisan and points out that Clinton committed perjury as well).
Bernie Madoff’s lies were also sloppy and there were many people aware that something wasn’t right with his business. And yet, as the book points out, no one wanted to risk their money or their careers by being the one to say the “emperor isn’t wearing any clothes”. What’s most shocking about his case is the SEC’s failure to catch on after multiple investigations and their general disinterest in doing anything about the law breaking lies that they knew were being delivered to them routinely.
In TANGLED WEBS, James B. Stewart is doing his part to alert us to an epidemic. His point is that when the system cannot rely on people to tell the truth under oath, it cannot uphold justice. Makes sense. But what can we do about it? Stewart says the solution needs to come both from the top but also from each of us. We need to raise our children to understand the importance of honesty – especially under oath. And of course, we need to choose to follow the laws ourselves if ever called to testify. I would add that continuing to support people we know to be dishonest (by buying their products, watching them play sports or voting for them) is putting our stamp of approval on the behavior, not just the person. Though lying and obstructing justice may not seem as serious to us as murder or drug dealing or insider trading, we need to understand they are serious crimes with devastating consequences.
On of the truest measures of a good book is whether or not it makes you think. This book does. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll want all your friends to read it to so you can talk about it.
— Dana Barrett, Managing Editor