Last week on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart was chatting with 2020‘s Cynthia McFadden about the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, the Salt Lake City teen whose family is almost parodically all-American. ”Do you think they’re getting all this coverage because they‘re“ — he jokingly whispered it — ”whiteys?“ McFadden looked startled (they don’t joke this way over at ABC, at least not on the air), but she quickly recovered: ”They‘re also blondies.“

A couple of days later, CNN interrupted its regular news for live coverage of a press conference held by Smart’s media-addicted aunt and father. After they‘d finished rambling on about their desire to get Elizabeth back, and after we’d again been shown the clips of Elizabeth performing in a school production — the networks just adore a photogenic victim — the anchorwoman in Atlanta asked why the local cops hadn‘t joined the press conference. The on-scene reporter replied, ”A police spokesman says there’s nothing new to report.“ Oh.

Of course, you can‘t really blame CNN for milking the Smart case. Like a gangster’s funeral or wildfire roaring through Arizona, the snatching of a 14-year-old from her bedroom is a classic populist story, one that‘s doubly seductive in what seems to be the lull between al Qaeda attacks and the War on Terror’s move to Iraq. During rerun season, nothing plays better than a nice crime yarn, be it Court TV‘s new Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege and Justice, whose ashen host appears to have emerged from The Dead Zone, or the riveting saga of Terry Barton, the 38-year-old U.S. Forest Service worker accused of setting the disastrous Hayman, Colorado, fire because (it is rumored) she can‘t shake off her bum husband. Her story sounds incredibly juicy, and it’s no wonder that CNN‘s clueless but canny Connie Chung launched her new comedy news show by interviewing Barton’s brother-in-law (who, boringly, said she didn‘t do it).

Even as Barton was being fitted for the J. Lo role in Enough 2: The Conflagration, our most famous ice maiden, Martha Stewart, was being pilloried for the suggestion that she may have illegally engaged in ”insider trading“ of shares in the biotech firm ImClone. Naturally, her discomfiture has been greeted with no small glee — The N.Y. Times dubbed the reaction ”blondenfreude“ — though to be fair, the real villain is apparently ImClone’s recently arrested CEO, Sam Waksal. But he‘s just a faceless social climber (Time ran a photo of the poor schmuck beaming alongside a sardonically grinning Mick Jagger). In contrast, Stewart has already finished her climb, transforming herself into a cultural archetype — and lightning rod. While Erica Jong grumbles that Stewart’s domestic-goddess act keeps women in their homes, The Wall Street Journal‘s Jennifer Grossman claims that feminists dislike Stewart because she refuses to play the victim.

Stewart clearly pays a price for being the classic Type A woman (think of American Beauty’s contempt for Annette Bening‘s character), but her symbolic meaning far transcends gender. Her career embodies social aspirations that were every bit as typical of the ’90s economic boom as dot-com mania. Where creeps like Jack Welch merely wanted to own the world, Stewart strove to remake it in line with the pseudo-aristocratic fantasies of elegance and good taste you might expect of one who‘d escaped Polish working-class roots — fantasies shared by millions who yearn to know how to arrange flowers properly or decorate a Fourth of July cake. Martha-ism is all about the promise of worldly perfection — she wants to make things nice — but once she became both an uber-hausfrau and a corporation, these promises took on a spooky new resonance. Topping Ralph Lauren, the woman became her own product and logo, an infomercial with legs. Frozen in her WASP-ish persona, she began to seem madder and madder — Ana Gasteyer’s SNL impression is of a sociopath whose chosen weapons are pie crusts and Christmas ornaments — and now that she has mortifying legal woes, her carefully burnished brand is melting (her stock dropped 21 percent on Monday). Appearing on CBS‘s The Early Show on Tuesday, she coldly refused to discuss her problems, prompting CNN anchor Leon Harris to suggest that she’d be wiser to emulate . . . Oprah. But this misses the whole point of being Martha Stewart, which is to never, ever let it all hang out.

During the heyday of the Lewinsky scandal, my old colleague Tom Carson joked that Clinton deliberately got involved in sex scandals to distract us from his actual crimes — illegal campaign financing, for instance — which could get him tossed in prison. Although it‘s not intentional (sorry, conspiracy buffs), a similar distraction is currently at work in television’s tireless coverage of the Smart and Stewart cases. Even as the networks carry live feeds from Utah, the serious press is slowly mapping the full size and scope of the last decade‘s corporate-crime spree, a debacle so dire that even The Wall Street Journal is running a series on boardroom malfeasance whose title wails, ”WHAT’S WRONG?“

The Journal wasn‘t wailing six months ago when N.Y. Times columnist Paul Krugman first bruited the notion that the Enron scandal might ultimately prove more important than 911; then, conservatives suggested that he was a barking liberal. But today the dollar and the stock market are sinking, the name Gordon Gekko has abruptly regained its currency, and such brainy commentators as Kevin Phillips (in last Sunday’s L.A. Times) have begun comparing the ceaseless drip-drip-drip of information about corporate dishonesty to the revelations of Watergate. The big names are lining up like dominoes: Enron, Arthur Andersen, Merrill Lynch, Adelphia, Dynegy, Rite Aid (!), Global Crossing and, of course, Halliburton (whose former CEO was, yes, Dick Cheney). According to The Economist, nearly 1,000 American companies have restated their earnings since 1997, after publishing wrong or misleading numbers designed to show off imaginary profits and artificially inflate stock values. We‘ve become the world’s richest kleptocracy, an Indonesia where everyone has cable.

Not that all this criminality has cost those running our big companies, where top CEOs still earn, on average, 410 times their average employee‘s salary: You’re constantly hearing that professional athletes are bums when they don‘t deliver on their big contracts, but sluggish Mo Vaughn can’t compare to the Enron execs who were paid $680 million in 2001 to steer their company into the shoals. Things are worse than ever now that Bush has stocked his government with former corporate big shots. No Teddy Roosevelt, oilman Bush can‘t even muster fake outrage about corporate crime (he doesn’t really seem to believe that his pal Kenny Boy Lay did anything wrong). Expecting his administration to enforce proper corporate behavior is like asking R. Kelly to make sure the baby sitter gets home safely.

Earlier this year, the vice president‘s top-secret energy task force designed an energy policy that was in some cases literally written by the big energy firms that backed Bush’s campaign. On June 17, the Republicans unveiled a prescription-drug plan championed by the pharmaceutical companies. Two days later, the Washington Post has reported, Bush headlined a Republican fund-raiser expected to raise $30 million. Among the major donors were Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Bayer A.G., Merck and Co., GlaxoSmithKline PLC — plus their industry group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Far from worrying about how such donations might corrupt democracy, the Bush administration remains obsessed with winning the war. No, not the War on Terror, you fools, but, as Bush‘s top adviser Karl Rove so fervently put it, ”the war . . . to repeal the death tax.“

Still, it says something about the shifting national mood that, even as Bush’s people bow before big corporations, they‘ve stopped boasting that their boss has an MBA and the management style of a Fortune 500 CEO. Now, they’re promoting him as a Renaissance man. One day, we see him leading hundreds of White House staffers on a three-mile run (like Clinton, he apparently hopes to evoke JFK-style ”vigah“). On still another, we‘re preposterously told that Bush prepped for a speech by discussing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. (I wonder if Aristotle taught him that it‘s okay to keep lying and lying.) On June 14, Bush gave the commencement address at Ohio State University, an occasion remarkable for an official PA announcement that visible signs of protest would lead to arrest or expulsion. ”Cynicism leaves no monuments,“ the president declared, and maybe he’s right. It all depends on whether you think that huge, deficit-creating tax cuts, most of them going to the rich during wartime, deserve to be declared a monument.

While Bush clearly doesn‘t care about our rampaging corporations, the respectable right-wing media have begun to grasp that their excesses could spell big trouble for conservatism. Their Genghis Khan behavior could spark a ’30s-style populist backlash that could spread like wildfire, so they‘d better at least pretend to take the problem seriously. In a recent editorial for The Weekly Standard, a magazine no less enjoyable for nearly always being wrong, David Brooks correctly notes that the Republican Party now runs ”a K Street patronage operation that effectively eliminates the distinction between conservatives and corporatists.“ And he goes on to insist that America deserves something better than leaders whose vision is overtaken by a ”corporate mentality.“

You know things have gotten pretty hairy when even right-wingers start worrying that the Republican Party has become the running dog of Capital.

LA Weekly