Another Trial in New York

The current proceedings in a Manhattan courthouse aren’t the first time the interests have tried to lay low a wealthy populist icon.

Photo Credit: The Martha Stewart Show

Once upon a time, one of the most famous people in the world went on trial in New York.

This person ran a business and had achieved a state of ubiquity thanks to a gift of media savvy; hosted a television program, logged countless appearances on talk shows; this person’s name appeared on all manner of household products. This person was hugely popular among wide swaths of the American public but, with an outsize persona, easily parodied. Even this celebrity’s critics, though, had to admit that the charges seemed like small-time stuff, and the decision to bring them, excessive and vindictive. 

I am, of course, referring to Martha Stewart.

For a period in the 1980s and ’90s, Stewart was the American Hestia, a benevolent blonde deity who oversaw our collective hearth and home. Through her magazine and TV show, both titled Martha Stewart Living, she had parlayed her proficiency in home economics into an empire. 

In early 2004, though, Stewart was pulled away from her main residence in Westport, Connecticut—where, by all rights, she should have been organizing her closets or pruning her trees—and deposited into a federal courthouse in New York, where she sat, week after week, for a trial on charges related to insider trading. Then-U.S. Attorney James Comey brought the case. In March of that year, a jury pronounced Stewart guilty on a range of largely trifling counts, including making false statements. 

The woman who shared the gospel of pinecone wreaths and homemade crème fraiche had been felled by process crimes. 

Prior to her downfall, it was easy to spoof Stewart. When I was a teenager, I aspired to be a cartoonist in the mold of Garry Trudeau and Jules Feiffer, and though my political convictions were never so far left as theirs, I had absorbed enough of their work to recognize that Stewart was an ideal satirical target. In my amateur cartooning, I loved drawing panels that sent up the unrealistically effortless way in which Stewart executed arduous household chores.

Yet my attitude softened when Stewart became unjustly associated with a wave of genuinely awful early 2000s-era corporate mega-scandals, including Enron and Tyco. Estimates varied, but her alleged insider trading was said to have saved this many-times-over-millionaire somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000. Even so, a juror, quoted by CNN, claimed that the guilty verdict amounted to “a victory for the little guys”—as though Stewart was a robber baron rather than a mere maven of meringue pies. 

After she was sentenced to five months in prison, she decried how “a small personal matter” had been blown up “with such venom and such gore,” but she also appeared ready to face her fate. “Whatever I have to do in the next few months, I hope the months go by quickly,” she said. “I’m used to all kinds of hard work, as you know, and I’m not afraid.” 

Upon Stewart’s release in March 2005, she endured a term of house arrest—not exactly a taxing punishment given her wealth and her way with creating inviting domestic environments—but was soon again the queen of all media. When autumn rolled around, she found herself hosting a daytime program and her own personal offshoot of (ahem) The Apprentice. By then, most people had long since come to regard her conviction as something of a joke. She told David Letterman that her prison job paid 12 cents an hour and helped her purchase, eventually, a pair of work boots while behind bars. 

Stewart’s conviction may have been intended to bring low someone rich and famous, but it only demonstrated her own resiliency. Her fans presumably consisted of some of the same ordinary folks for whom her guilty verdict was said to atone, but they remained loyal to their guru: They watched her on TV, read her magazine, bought her cookware and sheet sets.

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If you have read this far, perhaps you are starting to see some present-day parallels. 

Right now, there is another widely loved and widely hated public figure on trial in New York for assorted bookkeeping offenses. He once had something to do with The Apprentice, and James Comey is not known to be a fan of his. His alleged crimes, like hers, seem to be paper-thin. So far, his fans, like hers, have shrugged. And like her, he projects defiance and confidence. 

Can he weather a conviction? Decide for yourself whether history will be a guide, but let it be noted that Stewart’s saga demonstrates that even unfriendly courthouses in New York can be places where comebacks begin.


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