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Martha and Barry’s Big Britches 

Supersized Celebrity Crimes

Thursday, Mar 11 2004
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Illustration by Peter Bennett

Churchill famously remarked that the Germans are always either at your throat or at your feet. Americans adopt the same schizoid posture toward celebrity — only we tend to do both at the same time. In the polarizing Bush Era, this relationship with fame has been pushed to new extremes. Never have we been so enthralled by celebrities; never have we felt such unconcealed delight in watching them tumble.

For the Justice Department, the trial of Martha Stewart (and that other guy, Peter Something- orother) was about lying to cover up insider trading. But America only cared about the case because Stewart is a national archetype — and lightning rod. Even as countless Americans made wisecracks about Martha redecorating her cell, just as many insisted that she’d only been prosecuted for such a rinky-dink crime because she’s a Democrat and a powerful woman — both Bill Maher and SNL joked that she’d been convicted of being a bitch.

Until 2002, Stewart’s biography read like the purest Horatio Alger. At first, her take-charge ideas of cooking and decorating offered her fans, most of them women, an empowering vision of how to make their world nicer in the era of strip malls and McDonald’s. Then, having made herself the very symbol of traditional home comforts, she updated the whole shebang: She went corporate. Her landmark deal with Kmart was a turning point in popularizing the modern design culture you find in all those Michael Graves teakettles at Target. Although the puritans of the left reflexively sniff at consumerism, Stewart was something of an aesthetic heroine. She helped liberate millions from the tyranny of ugly, ill-conceived goods — low-thread-count towels, Day-Glo colored ceramics — that had long been one of the most depressing features of not having much money. Her way of changing mass taste made her a far more culturally significant figure than, say, Eminem, Martin Scorsese or any dozen novelists you might choose to name.

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In the beginning, Martha-ism was all about democratizing the promise of elite style — we could all have that perfect Thanksgiving. But this promise took on an oppressive new shading once she turned into the woman who boasted, “I am a brand.” Taking pride in cool, unflappable elegance, she became widely mocked for a bossy, brittle, control-freak persona that hinted at an elitist superiority she once promised to overturn. Her legal woes did nothing to change this. Walking from the courthouse last Friday, her face a Kabuki mask of impassivity, she was chided by many reporters for hauteur and lack of remorse. But her stoicism wasn’t aristocratic pretension. It was an expression of the blue-collar toughness that let young Martha Kostyra rise above a background she found imprisoning.

Although Stewart’s self-reinvention made her a free-market heroine — The Wall Street Journal adores her — it put her out of sync with a culture hooked on a populism that’s as phony as a glass eye. In America these days, nobody wants to seem like a toff. Bush and Kerry take pains to play down their privileged roots (Dubya does it far better). Bill O’Reilly lies about his hardscrabble childhood — pretending to be a latter-day, Levittown Joad — while Michael Moore flaunts his ball cap and jeans as semiotic proof of his lowborn integrity. Not so Martha, who steadfastly refuses to play the populist. Coming off as a woman who’s gotten too big for her britches, this daughter of the working class became the perfect fall gal for an elitist Bush administration that wants to pretend it’s doing something about corporate malfeasance. Although faced with the sort of tactics used against gangsters like Al Capone — the feds charged her with obstructing justice in the investigation of a $50,000 crime for which she wasn’t charged — Stewart wound up paying for the incomparably greater sins of far crookeder execs never prosecuted by the Justice Department.

Even those who decided her fate viewed her trial in symbolic terms. Juror Chappell Hartridge, a 47-year-old computer technician, said he hoped the verdict sent a message to big corporations, adding, “Maybe it’s a victory for the little guys.” In its startling haste and eagerness to teach a lesson, Stewart’s conviction was almost the flip side of the O.J. Simpson jury’s verdict on the LAPD. Pondering Stewart’s conviction on Chris Matthews, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell suggested that sentiments like Hartridge’s bode ill for a sitting president linked to corporate America. I wonder. There’s no denying that the national mood is hostile to corporate fat cats — as the Disney vote on Michael Eisner helped underscore — yet it seems likely that Stewart will serve the classic function of the scapegoat. Her highly visible punishment will likely dissipate public anger, distracting attention from the social logic of the system that produced so many Wall Street crimes.

To properly grasp Stewart’s wrongdoing, you must start with the run-amok workings of contemporary American capitalism, be it the shifty brokers or dot-com cheerleaders on CNBC, the wantonly pro-business administrations that allowed corporations to run wild — as much under Clinton as under Bush I and II — or the post-Reagan cultural values that have made “money hunger” (as David Denby calls it in his market memoir American Sucker) a perfectly respectable form of delusionary entitlement. All this has largely been lost in the story of Martha’s spectacular downward slide into the slammer, which has become a tale of private greed and hubris. As ever, Martha is keeping things nice and orderly — in this case, the Bush Era status quo — by becoming a sacrificial lamb in the court of celebrity justice.

 

The next unlikable icon being set up for a fall is Barry Bonds, whose own form of self-creation is incomparably more physical than Stewart’s. He’s been named for receiving illegal steroids and growth hormones from BALCO, a lab implicated in a drug-distribution ring. Although Bonds denies the claims publicly, one wonders if he did the same before the grand jury investigating his personal trainer. If so, he could face the same sort of cover-up charges that brought down Stewart.

While Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield have also been named in the investigation, Bonds is clearly the big enchilada. Not only is he the dominant player of his era — Jim Rome calls him “Barry Bones” because of all the money he makes — but his arrogant, standoffish rudeness makes Donald Trump look as down-home as Oprah. Few in baseball will weep if the feds nail him, not even his teammates who aren’t allowed to enter his private locker-room domain where he angles his big-screen TV so others can’t watch. Although we’re still a few years away from Bonds being enshrined in Cooperstown, his bust is already on display in the Asshole Hall of Fame.

Of course, a dozen years after the death at 43 of Raiders star Lyle Alzado, who insisted that steroids caused his brain cancer, there’s something absurd about society’s guardians suddenly getting hysterical about performance-enhancing drugs. In a clueless Culture War fillip, President Bush weirdly dropped the subject into his State of the Union address (why didn’t he say no to doping when he was running the Texas Rangers?). On ESPN’s The Sports Reporters, yapping Chihuahua Mike Lupica, who loves working himself into a righteous lather, lectured viewers on how steroids are cheating and illegal and deadly. Well, yeah.

Anyone who’s followed sports over the last 20 years couldn’t fail to notice that, even as ordinary Americans’ bodies have grown ever-fatter from Big Gulps and gargantuan orders of fries, athletes have gotten outlandishly muscular. Where Bonds resembled an ordinary well-built outfielder when he played for the Pirates, in his mid-30s his physique exploded — he really has become a Giant. His upper body now recalls Disney’s old animated figure of Casey at the Bat — an inverted pyramid with a head — while his legs are so musclebound they mess up his fielding. Barry now has the thick-thighed, waddling run I associate with Duh Gubna in Eraser.

Until recently, such athletic supersizing seemed a development that — aside from the premature deaths, of course — was good for everyone. Good for players who turned massive bodies into massive paychecks, good for supposed fans who got to see even studlier thoroughbreds on the playing field, good for owners who had a sexier product to market, and good for the overgrown boys in the sports media who need superheroes to worship so they can ride their fame like fleas on a mastiff. Of course, now that people are getting busted, all the jocks, owners, politicians and pundits are discussing the problem oh so seriously. After such sanctimonious guff, it’s a relief to hear Joe McDonnell and Doug Krikorian tell local radio-show listeners they don’t give a damn whether Barry took steroids. At least they aren’t pretending.

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