Martha McCarthyism

McCarthyism is when the government demonizes you for political and opportunistic reasons rather than for the actual meaning of what you might have done. Martha certainly is on trial not, principally, for the damage she has caused or the danger she might present but for the symbolic and career advantages (the original federal prosecutor in the case, James Comey, has already been promoted to deputy attorney general) she offers to the people putting her on trial.

My friend Susan Braudy, whose new book, Family Circle, is about the ambitions and solipsism of the American left, was wondering the other day, only half ironically, why the rich—that is, Martha’s circle—weren’t rising up to defend her, the way the left wing mobilized against McCarthy. Indeed, Martha’s circle—the corporate honchos, the entrepreneurial class, the media elite—occupies a position not dissimilar to the one left-wing intellectuals held in the fifties. Martha’s circle holds cultural cachet, arbitrates taste, and has access to the media.

But, of course, nobody (save for a few stricken, die-hard fans) is protesting on the courthouse steps. Martha is very much alone.

At the same time, people have not—at least in the privacy of the dinner-party circuit—altogether turned their backs on her. There is, in my unscientific sampling, a pretty near unanimity of opinion: This is a capricious and selective trial. “An evil trial,” in the words of one media entrepreneur I know. “A police-state trial,” in the words of another.

Of course, this is not to say that most people don’t think Martha isn’t at least somewhat guilty (or, likewise, that McCarthy’s targets weren’t somewhat communists). This is, in fact, what ought to make the trial seem all the more insidious and frightening (at least if you’re rich), because you can’t engage successfully in capitalism in America, anyone who has been successful understands (and the less successful suspect), without being a little guilty.

In a rational world, this should, the good capitalist believes, fairly add up to a confession along the lines of: “I lied; you got me; I freaked out and didn’t tell the truth,” and a soft slap on the wrist. Only in a distorted world does this add up to a trial that will consume tens of millions of dollars (not to mention more than $400 million in shareholder value) and threaten 30 years in prison (given mandatory sentencing guidelines, even a slap on the wrist will get Martha hard time).

Perhaps it is the scary sense of shared guilt that is keeping the rich inside. Or perhaps the opposite: As in the early days of the McCarthy campaign, the rich of today, like the left wing then, have still not realized the extent of their shared peril.

Doug Faneuil is the Whitaker Chambers of Martha’s circle: He was a fellow traveler until truth overwhelmed him. Indeed, a major part of the government’s case involves the logic: Why would Faneuil have come forward, why would he have recanted, if he hadn’t been involved in a great crime? If a man sees the light, it can only mean he has come from darkness. Like Chambers, he has repented not only for his involvement in the conspiracy but, it seems from the wide discrepancy between his courtroom appearance and his vamp picture in the New York Post, for his life in the demimonde. (The gay-stockbroker demimonde.)

This is, of course, another part of Martha’s problem—not so much her questionable stock trades but with whom she did her questionable stock trades. It’s all about the company you keep.

There’s Sam Waksal, for goodness’ sake, dating the daughter and then befriending the mother. And then this sense of a lackey culture—the dominants and the submissives. Bacanovic as Martha’s bitch. Faneuil as Bacanovic’s bitch. (So how will the non-rich—this minority jury not of Martha’s peers—judge this subculture of the rich? Will Martha and Peter be judged literally, as the prosecution asks? As active participants in a fringe group of the rich and sycophantic whose intention was to lie and cheat for a few thousand dollars more—or, in Sam Waksal’s case, a few million more? Or were these people involved in a more complex relationship full of equivocal—she changes the phone message, she changes it back—perhaps no more than only half-devious, motivations?)

More on Martha Stewart
Circus Minimus
By Michael Wolff
Hyped as a great public drama, the Martha Stewart trial was about as exciting as watching an accountant work. Then came Doug Faneuil–Candide in a suit. (February 16, 2004)Which Martha?
By Michael Wolff
There’s the victim, and the schemer, the Connecticut white lady, and the career girl. So who is she? Tell us, and you’ll tell us who you are. (February 9, 2004)Can This Man Save Martha?
By Chris Smith
Veteran criminal-defense attorney Robert Morvillo is the last thing standing between Martha Stewart and federal prison. Never mind that the Brooklyn-born Morvillo is built like Don Zimmer and sounds like Ed Koch. For Martha, he could be the ultimate good thing. (December 15, 2003)Jail Bait
By James J. Cramer
Martha Stewart’s being treated unfairly, she’s being singled out, right? Nonsense. By mounting a breathtakingly inept defense that only served to taunt prosecutors, she wrote her own indictment. (June 23, 2003)I Love Martha
By Michael Wolff
If Martha Stewart gets sent away, I’ll miss not only her but her genius business model: a media empire built around the idea that Martha could be paid to be Martha.(October 21, 2002)

Martha’s circle may be staying away precisely because it doesn’t want to be thought of as being in this circle (when you deconstruct the relationships of the rich and the people who attend them, it does look so undignified).

There is, too, the sense that Martha and her troubles represent just a certain kind of hysteria. McCarthyism is not a structural condition but an anomalous one. It passes. Slate, the online magazine, had the clever idea to send Henry Blodget, a fellow boom traveler and securities-business malefactor, to cover the trial. It is Blodget’s view that the Martha trial is just about a particular six-month period. Martha is the victim, the detritus, of a historical moment. She got caught in an overreaction. And the moment that she got caught in has passed.

And then there is, not unnaturally, a competitive sense among the rich. Martha monopolized a lot of attention. More than her fair share. This resentment (and surely it is that) now has evolved into something of a cautionary tale. I found myself at a dinner party the other night given by an investment banker (the premise of the party seemed to be fresh-looking young people with prominent last names) who pronounced the theme of the age to be “keeping our heads down,” staying far from the limelight, avoiding getting on or being put on a pedestal. “Don’t,” he said, “make yourself a target.” If publicity might once have been the most valuable currency, now it has suddenly come to have seriously negative value. The rich (at least the truly rich) have to return to insularity and exclusivity, and stay out of harm’s way of hoi polloi media (this is, of course, a truism that the rich have always understood and forgotten only during the most manic economic phases). Certainly, these young people seemed to take this advice very seriously.

It is hard, of course, to feel all that sorry for the rich (nor was it probably so intuitive to feel sorry, in another time, for the communists), particularly the rich who yell at the help (which may be all of the rich). And yet, there is a principle here. We ought not to prosecute somebody just because the tide turns against him—or her. It seems obvious, then, what should happen. The rich and everybody else on the make in New York (quite an ugly mob) should head down to the courthouse to defend their self-interest.

Come on—free Martha.

Martha McCarthyism