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Jewish World Review March 10, 2004/ 17 Adar 5764

Kathleen Parker

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Martha Stewart: Just deserts or did justice desert?

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | With Saddam out of his spider hole, and now regime change at Martha Stewart's empire, I dunno, I just feel safer somehow.

It's reassuring to know that the feds are looking out for us regular folks, tracking down and prosecuting such dastardly enemies of the state. Eliot Ness must be clicking his heels in heaven or wherever the pursuers of evildoers dwell in perpetuity.

Sarcasm off. The very weird "b-tch hunt" of Martha Stewart, as Rosie O'Donnell put it, summons to mind the 1997 movie, "Wag the Dog." In the film, the president of the United States is under siege for a sex scandal and invents a war in order to distract the public.

In a modern world of corporate scandal, in which CEOs have bilked investors for millions, our federal investigators have spent months and several fortunes pursuing someone whose crime pales by comparison. A distraction from what exactly? Their failure to adequately pursue the really bad guys?

But, by golly, they got their symbol of corporate greed and made their grand token gesture in the war against hubris, simultaneously satisfying the cultural bloodlust for The Bitch. Martha was the universal uppity woman everyone could feel virtuous in hating.

No, I'm not making excuses for Martha, who should have told the truth as soon as possible. But neither am I inclined to celebrate a judicial "victory" that trivializes the truly monstrous corporate crimes that have robbed people of their life savings and that thus far have gone not only unpunished in many cases, but unindicted.

Enron comes to mind.

Martha, whose crime ultimately consisted of (a) taking her broker's advice to sell doomed stock, and (b) trying to cover her tracks when she realized she shouldn't have by lying to federal investigators, has been prosecuted to within an inch of her life. She's been found guilty on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and lying to the government for which she could face up to 20 years in prison.

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Again, no excuses for lying. Bad Martha. But in the grand scheme of things, her lie and subsequent damages are hardly proportionate to her conviction and potential sentencing, not to mention the possible loss of her company and, as for the rest of us, the only source in the global marketplace for a good taupe garden hose.

And we're supposed to feel grateful for justice served? Spare me the just deserts for a woman of legendary arrogance. I want her duvet-fluffing tips.

I don't subscribe to the feminist argument that this was exclusively a b-tch-hunt, though I do think her grating grandiosity made prosecutors' job easier. Public outrage wasn't likely. Martha had her supporters, some of whom gathered outside the courthouse during her trial, but I suspect most people enjoyed the spectacle of someone as reputedly unpleasant as Martha Stewart being brought down.

To our size, right? Isn't that how it goes? She's just like the rest of us even if she is, or was, worth billions, has her own private jet and rents $1,500-a-night, company-paid hotel suites on Mexico vacations. Serves her right. On a platter.

Moreover, and to her lasting discredit, it isn't hard to dredge up personal testimonials of Martha abuse. In the history of unsympathetic characters, she has few peers such that whoever invented the word "schadenfreude" - the enjoyment of another's troubles - must have been privy to the oracle's predicting her birth.

For a peek at the public's uncharitable opinion, check the poll at Forbes.com. As of Monday, the vote for Martha's punishment broke down as follows: community service, 5 percent; fine, 6 percent; community service and a fine, 24 percent; jail, 9 percent; JAIL AND FINE (my emphasis), 48 percent; none of the above, 5 percent; and, don't know, 2 percent.

Whatever our visceral response to Martha Stewart, code for I'm-perfect-and-you're-not, it seems clear that her prosecution was mostly a show. Yes, yes and yes, she did a bad thing. But cutting along the bias, government prosecutors went after her because she's a celebrity.

Given that celebrity, it's unlikely the judge can avoid meting out a sentence that entails jail time. Can't cut her slack just because she's Somebody. Of course absent her celebrity - and the negligible public interest such a case otherwise would have prompted - Martha wouldn't have made the court docket except that she is Somebody.

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