James B. Stewart’s Tangled Webs How False Statements are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff is quite possibly the shortest 440 pages I’ve ever read. Even with the occasionally laborious amount of detail, Tangled Webs is a carefully crafted page-turner with important stories to tell.
Stewart’s main premise is simple enough: America is drowning in lies. Both the title of the book and the dedication “To all who seek the truth” sum up Stewart’s main point quite nicely. He does expound on these ideas in the introduction, which opens with some impressively depressing statistics, e.g., 1,318,398—the number of murders committed in 2009. The number of lies—unknown: “No one keeps statistics for perjury and false statements—lies told under oath or to investigative and other agencies of the U.S. government—even though they are felonies punishable by up to five years in prison. There is simply too much of it, and too little is prosecuted to generate any meaningful statistics.”
Apparently, America is full of liars and what’s worse—many don’t seem to care.
Perhaps the only consolation is that perjury has a long history—21st century society didn’t start it—we just seem to tolerate it better than our ancestors. You’d think perjury would have been eradicated in 16th century Britain, where “the offender was typically punished by cutting out his tongue, or making him stand with both ears nailed to the pillory”. Clearly, though, perjury and other forms of lying are still flourishing; as Stewart notes, “I have written for many years about business and politics, and as the scandals of the last decade mounted—Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, Tyco, culminating in the shocking Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme—it occurred to me that they all shared a common thread: lying. Sometimes it wasn’t labeled perjury per se, but the essence of fraud is false statements…”
And so, Stewart details, with great thought and care, several of the most notable (but sadly enough certainly not the only) perjury cases of the 21st century: Martha Stewart, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Barry Lamar Bonds, and Bernard Madoff.
Of course, most know how these stories progress (I don’t say “end”, because with events such as the death of Madoff’s son, some of these stories still seem to be unfolding) but that doesn’t stop the pages from turning quickly. Certainly, part of this is because of the writing style and tone. Understated doesn’t quite seem to cover the pithy comments such as this (from the section on Libby): “Remarkably, it apparently didn’t occur to anyone at a White House purportedly focused on national security that identifying a CIA officer might be a breach of security”. The honesty and the brevity of comments like “What an asshole, Novak thought” (Robert Novak’s thought about Joseph C. Wilson IV formed in NBC’s greenroom before a taping of Meet the Press) add to the readability.
Another reason this book is hard to put down is because of the little details—only the most seasoned news junkie won’t find some previously unknown nugget of information in this book. Taken out of context, some of these points might seem trivial, but they contribute to the overall scene. For example, Stewart’s descriptions of the courtroom (in the section on Martha Stewart) not only create a strong sense of place, but say something about Martha Stewart:
“[Martha] Stewart herself had already managed to put her distinctive stamp on the courtroom…Stewart had special cushions made in navy fabric with contrasting stitching, embroidered with her monogram, which were placed each morning on the first three rows of benches reserved for her entourage…Martha Stewart employees were assigned rotating trial duty so the Stewart benches were always full. Steward had even baked and delivered a chocolate cake for FBI agents who worked the building…Stewart’s hair was styled each day by celebrity hairdresser Eva Scrivo…”
From here, Stewart allows his readers to draw their own conclusions.
Each account is painstakingly researched and engaging enough on its own, but Stewart has a larger point to make and a number of important questions he is trying to answer:
“This surge of perjury cases at the highest levels of business, politics, media, and culture poses some fundamental questions: Why would people with so much to lose put so much at risk by lying under oath? Whatever they may have done, why would they compound their problems by committing an independent felony, punishable by prison?...And what price are all of us paying for their behavior?”
It’s the last question that should engage all readers. As the world watched these cases unfold on the nightly news, the “how could they be so stupid” question must have floated through many people’s minds. Whether or not people connected what was happening in these courtrooms to their own lives is another question entirely. Stewart maintains, and anyone with a lick of common sense should agree, that Bonds, Stewart, Madoff, and Libby “enjoyed money, fame, power, and celebrity to a degree that most people can only dream of. Yet, they shattered their lives and those of people around them while inflicting untold damage on society as a whole.”
How did we get from a society that drove nails through people’s ears for lying in court to a society that seems to condone lying? That’s a tough question to answer. And even though the penalties for perjury today are clearly not as severe (or brutal) as those in 16th century England, why do people risk it? This question is, according to Stewart, more easily answered: people commit “crimes of perjury” because they think they can get away with it.
Another important question: What happens if the epidemic of perjury continues? The short answer: Nothing good. Stewart’s slightly longer answer: “Lying under oath that goes unproven and unpunished breeds a cynicism that undermines the foundations of any society that aspires to fair play and the rule of law. It undermines civilization itself.”
Considering the number of cases that could be easily added to this book, perhaps we should just say goodbye to civilization, now.