Congress expert Norman Ornstein on what the debate over the debt limit says about dysfunction in Congress, and his ideas for how to fix it.
Lying is as old as civilization itself. People tell lies for many reasons, often with few or no consequences. But in a judicial system based on people telling the truth under oath, lies can ruin lives. In a new book, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and lawyer argues that perjury has become commonplace. And it’s being committed by people at the highest levels of business, politics, media and culture. He examines the high-profile trials of Martha Stewart, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Barry Bonds and Bernie Madoff. And he explores why people with so much to lose by lying do it anyway. A discussion with James B. Stewart on how lies can harm people and societies – and why loyalty almost never trumps honesty.
- James Stewart Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter and author of "Blind Eye," "Den of Thieves" and other non-fiction works.
Author Extra: James Stewart Answers Questions
Mr. Stewart stayed after the show to answer a few more questions.####
Q: My question is: Do we lie more today, or are we more aware of lying? Has the Internet made us more aware of lies that have always occurred throughout the long timeline of Humanity?
– From Will via email in Massachusetts
A: My sense is that incidents of lying and perjury— especially in high places — are surging. Can I prove that? There aren’t any statistics, unlike murder or car theft. But every prosecutor I interviewed told me that it was an epidemic, or close to it, and it was getting worse. Anecdotally, I examined dozens and dozens of cases before choosing the four in the book. And why wouldn’t it be an epidemic, given the role models at the top? President Clinton committed perjury and only grudgingly apologized for it and President Bush condoned it when he commuted Scooter Libby’s sentence.
Q: Uncovering lies seems like it can be a complicated process. What’s the best way for journalists to combat lies? What should they read, think about or do differently in order to discover and expose lies?
– From Michael in Michigan
A: As a journalist, I assume someone is being truthful until I encounter evidence to the contrary. I like to think the best of people. But I’m always alert to the possibility. And in my experience, it isn’t that hard to detect. None of the liars and perjurers in my book turned out to be very good at it. This has also been true of many people I’ve interviewed as a journalist who lied. They always seemed to think I wouldn’t check or go to sources who could refute what they were saying. That’s a problem in journalism today. Access seems to be valued far too highly. The result is stories that simply restate whatever the celebrity source wants to say, no matter how far-fetched. And then people swallow It. I mean, Bernie Madoff is now giving prison interviews. I know for a fact that much of what he’s saying now is a lie.
Q: How does one teach a child not to lie? My 7 yr old lies quite readily, sometimes wildly fictitious stories, to garner attention, no doubt, and sometimes little stretches of the truth. How do I teach her the importance of her own integrity? – From Kimberly
A: Combating perjury starts in the home. Children are going to lie. They’re going to test the responses. This is a great learning opportunity. They also watch to see how parents react to others who lie. I learned valuable lessons as a child: my parents wouldn’t tolerate lying, and the burden of living with the lies and telling more to sustain them was intolerable.
Read an Excerpt
From Tangled Webs by James B. Stewart. Published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © James B. Stewart, 2011:
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Journalist and author James Stewart says, the U.S. is on the brink of becoming a society where perjury is the norm. He wrote his latest book in an attempt to understand why people lie under oath and as a reminder that lying can have terrible consequences. His new book is titled, "Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America." James Stewart joins me in the studio and we are looking forward to your questions and comments. Join us on 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a treat. And you heard me say treat because every now and then, I say treat instead of tweet and it's great. Good morning to you, James.
MR. JAMES STEWARTGood morning, Diane.
REHMYou know, I've wondered as I read through this book whether there was one moment when you said to yourself listening to the daily news, watching what was unfolding in this world, where you said, I have to write a book about lying.
STEWARTThere was such moment. I remember it quite clearly. I was giving a talk about all the corporate scandals that started unfurling over the last 15 years, I mean, an amazing wave of them, WorldCom, Enron, Adelphia, Tyco, they just kept coming. But I thought, where is the common thread? These weren't -- there were no common characters, these people didn't know each other. They were entirely independent and yet they were all sort of happening at the same time with devastating consequences for investors.
STEWARTAnd it hit me as I was giving this talk that well, yes, there is a common thread, false statements, lies and not just everyday, venial lies. These were lies with serious consequences committed by people at the top of their field, chief executives, chief financial officers, well-educated, wealthy, community leaders, role models and yet without any apparent compunction, they were willing to tell massive lies about the fiscal condition of their companies that investors relied on and ended up losing billions of dollars. And that's when it struck me, you know, this is really unacceptable and the consequences are very serious.
REHMDid you even that day begin making notes?
STEWARTYes. I think I started with the business examples and then I think it's like anything, once you're sort of sensitized to it, you start seeing it all over and I realized, wait a minute, this isn't just the business world. Of course, politics, need I say politics, was rife with it and then Hollywood, sports where you have many role models, media and then I was really hard at work on this when the Madoff scandal broke. And I was immediately struck that the first count on which he pleaded guilty was perjury and my antenna went up.
STEWARTAnd as I looked into it, you know, what Madoff did, I didn't find that interesting. It was just a big Ponzi scheme. There's nothing new about that. But he did it for over 20 years and four SEC investigations, lying his way through all of it with devastating consequences. And at the time, I thought, well, he must have been the biggest, the greatest liar of all time to have gotten away with that.
REHMBut was the SEC at the time accepting those lies without further investigation?
STEWARTI'm sorry to report that they were and the SEC, I don't think, is unusual here, but the Madoff case I chose because not only just because it's a fascinating story, but because it illustrates to me the devastating consequences of what happens when perjury does become the norm and law enforcement itself, people just shrug their shoulders and say, oh, it's another perjury case, you know, so what? You know, everybody's lying. What can we do about that?
STEWARTI was very disappointed and amazed to hear from the inspector general of the SEC that to his knowledge the SEC had never referred a standalone perjury case for prosecution, never. They only do it if they find an underlying securities law violation, which is why they never referred the Madoff case. The astonishing thing to me about Madoff, I don't use astonishing lightly, is he was not a great liar. He was a terrible liar. The SEC investigators knew he was lying.
STEWARTThe young enforcement officers were jumping up and down saying, this guy is committing perjury, we have to do something about it. And their superior shrugged and said, no. No, we don't think it will go anywhere. It won't go anywhere, which to me, you know, begs the question that people lie for a reason. They particularly commit perjury for a reason. It's not just for the sport of telling a fish story and getting away with it. They are covering something up and the fact that the SEC through incompetence largely or young people who meant well, but didn't have the expertise failed to find the Ponzi scheme. That's amazing in itself, but they should have known that perjury itself was a felony and not to prosecute him? And it would have saved investors countless billions of dollars.
REHMJames B. Stewart...
STEWARTI get worked up when I talk about this.
REHMWell, of course and I get worked up as I hear you talk about it. His new book is titled, "Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America." You start with Martha Stewart?
REHMMartha Stewart had everything going for her. She had a television show, book after book. She was the icon of how to do it beautifully, how to do it magically, how to do so everybody around you would think, oh, how perfect. And what happened?
STEWARTWell, the mystery of Martha Stewart is what drew me to her story. Because many people said, oh, well, why would she lie to save a measly $40,000 on a stock trade, an alleged insider stock trading scheme? And that, to me, was the central mystery about many of these stories, why people who have everything to lose and really what to gain by lying under oath, nevertheless take the faithful step, cross that line and do it. And Martha Stewart was a prime example of that.
STEWARTShe -- the evidence against her was very compelling and how that evidence came about is fascinating because of all the characters in the story, she came very close to getting away with it. They were ready to drop the investigation when the young stockbroker's assistant, when told he had to testify before the Grand Jury said, you know, I can't put my hand up, swear to tell the truth and not tell the truth. And by the way, he, to me, is a hero of this book because our whole legal system rests on this sort of honor code that we'll all when asked to, swear an oath, will then in fact tell the truth voluntarily without a gun to our heads.
STEWARTThe judicial system rests on this and Doug Nathaniel, the young stockbroker's assistant, honored this and that brought the whole thing down. But why didn't -- why would Martha Stewart have done this? Well, there's the simple answer and there's the complex answer. The complex answer you probably have to be a psychiatrist, but she is a perfectionist and I think it's worth remembering in many of these cases these people are very successful. They have gotten away with things like this before and they have been reinforced in their behavior.
STEWARTThey are also -- and Martha Stewart is a vivid example of this. They are surrounded by very highly paid executives, very highly paid lawyers who enable whatever they're doing. So Martha Stewart tells a wildly preposterous story that on its face makes no sense and everyone around her nods and smiles and says, well, yes, Martha, whatever you say, Martha. And there is some pretty appalling examples of that in the story. And then the combination of these things leads to the simple answer to the question is she thought she could get away with it. In a country where so many other people are lying, she sees them lying. She had lied and gotten away with it and she felt there was no risk. These people are very good as evaluators of risk and reward.
REHMAnd just to elaborate on Martha Stewart's story a bit, it was a stockbroker who gave her advance warning that the FDA was not going to approve a cancer drug that she had invested in.
STEWARTWell, with one wrinkle, what the stockbroker told her was that the chief executive of this company ImClone, was dumping all his shares on the eve of this decision. He didn't specifically say they would turn it down, but of course, anyone with a brain could put two and two together and figure out what was happening, so she dumped all of her shares. Then she and the stockbroker hatched an alternative scenario that was completely a lie and they told it. They repeated it under oath and that's what she was eventually charged with.
REHMWhat did she say?
STEWARTShe said that she had a prearranged agreement with the stockbroker to sell the shares if they went below $60 a share. But guess what, at the time the sale was executed, they weren't below $60 a share. This story did not hold water at all. And to me, the poignant element of this is the way they dragged others into the conspiracy, specifically the 26-year-old assistant of the stockbroker who actually executed the trade. He was pressured to lie. He did lie and one of the things I'm exploring in this book is the consequences, the damage that happens both to society and the individuals from this kind of perjury.
STEWARTAnd Martha Stewart, you can say, oh, you know, so what? She went to prison a while. She's swanning around now. She's still a celebrity on TV. But that young guy's life was ruined. At the individual granular level, there were people in her wake whose lives were destroyed by this, not to mention all the investors that lost billions of dollars.
REHMYou know what fascinates me is the idea that somewhere, somehow, somebody learned way back when as a young child perhaps that lying can get you through. The tendency to lie or the refusal to lie begins with parenthood, doesn't it?
STEWARTAbsolutely. I mean, people have been saying, well, what can we do about this? And there's no simple answer, but one of the big parts of the answer is, I think, starts with each and every one of us in our families. And I hear anecdotally that, particularly with the ease of copying on the internet, the elements of cheating and lying in schools have...
STEWART...is exponential, but you know, I had this experience myself as a child that I told a big whopper and it made an indelible impression on me.
REHMI want to hear about that whopper after we take a short break. The book is titled, "Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America."
REHMAs we talk about lying and perjury with James Stewart, he's the author of a new book titled, "Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America," we've been talking about individuals so far. Martha Stewart, Bernie Madoff, whose cases are extraordinarily well known, but you're also writing about administrations. You talk about Scooter Libby and what happened during the Bush Administration.
STEWARTYes. You know, I mentioned before, though. I think curbing this problem means we all have to do our part in the family, in the schools. But at the highest levels, we need examples set by our leaders. And I looked deeply into the Scooter Libby case -- by the way, like, in all of these cases I started out with an open mind considering the possibility that maybe they were innocent. And yet the evidence was so overwhelming.
STEWARTScooter Libby, a high level White House official and assistant to the president, chief of staff to the vice-president, intimately involved in all the major decisions of that administration. And we had a president who had said at the time, a CIA agent's identity was leaked, he said, we're going to get to the bottom of this. I'm going to fire anyone in my administration responsible for this and I'm not going to tolerate lying or false statements. And I took him at his word for that.
STEWARTSo Scooter Libby, it turns out, lied -- not only leaked her identity, but then lied before a Grand Jury numerous occasions, many occasions, which I document in the book. He was convicted of that. How did the president react? He commuted his sentence. Even more tellingly Scooter Libby was not the only person who leaked the identity. In fact, he wasn't the source for the famous Novak column that outed the CIA agent. The sources for that were Carl Rove, a very close friend of the president, and Richard Armitage in the State Department. Carl Rove came within a hair's breadth of being indicted for perjury as well for not being candid about this.
REHMWhy wasn't he?
STEWARTWell, there are two issues there. The proof beyond a reasonable doubt in perjury is very, very high. And I think the answer is, first of all, he had a very good lawyer. And when the lawyer discovered the evidence that indicated he had -- let's be charitable here -- made misstatements in his Grand Jury testimony, he immediately went to the prosecutor's special council, Patrick Fitzgerald, revealed the compromising e-mails and Carl Rove came back into the Grand Jury and said, I'm sorry, I made a mistake. I'm correcting the testimony. If he hadn't done that, he would've been charged with perjury. And was his testimony credible? I'll let the reader reach their own conclusion.
STEWARTHowever, one of the things I write in the book, which I find so interesting, is although he was not indicted, Patrick Fitzgerald sent a secret letter to President Bush describing the evidence against Rove. And I assume he did that with the expectation that taking Bush at his word, he would discipline Rove, he would remove him responsibility and he would hold him up as an example of exactly what he said he would not tolerate. What happened? Nothing. Bush never responded or even indicated that he had paid any attention to the evidence. I find that, as a writer, very, very disappointing because we need examples at the top. The characters I write about are role models, but who is a bigger role model than the president of the United States?
STEWARTWe had Bush essentially condoning perjury in his own office. And again, in that letter one of the most amazing things was the evidence that Rove not only lied to the Grand Jury, but had lied to President Bush. President Bush asked him point blank, were you a source for the Novak column? Rove said according to the testimony to Bush, well, I spoke to Novak, but the subject of the agent never came up. Now, that is not what he eventually told the Grand Jury. And the FBI agents thought that that in of itself might be a crime lying to the president.
REHMHow did you find out what he actually told the Grand Jury?
STEWARTWell, the -- he was -- his testimony before the Grand Jury was disclosed in part in his own book. He described what he said. The -- what he -- what President Bush said has never been disclosed before, but it was recorded in notes taken by the FBI agents when they interviewed Bush...
STEWART...as part of their investigation and it's disclosed, I think, in my book for the first time.
REHMYou know, before the break, you were about to tell us about your own childhood whopper.
STEWARTI was in the second grade and I came back from the lunch recess and there was a hubbub in the room. There was a young girl in the front row and she said that she had a dime stolen during the lunch break. And everybody in the class was agog about this. I don't know what got into me. I can only assume I was jealous of the attention and I just blurted out, well, I had a dollar stolen from me. This is probably like 1958, so a dollar was a lot of money. And it had all too much the desired effect. That girl was dropped like a hot potato. Everyone rushed to my side saying, oh, my god, this is terrible. We've never heard of anything this dramatic. And at that moment, the teacher came back in and everyone immediately yelled out, Jimmie had a dollar stolen.
STEWARTAnd it -- you know, so the teacher came over to me very concerned and said, well, what were you doing with a dollar? And this is when I realized that, oh, my God, it just doesn't stop. And so I said, well, my mother gave it to me so I could do the family grocery shopping after school. And at this point, the teacher grabbed me by the collar and marched me to the principal's office where she and the principal got my mother on the phone...
STEWART... (unintelligible) horrified thinking that they now thought...
STEWART...she was at home smoking and drinking while the young child was being sent off to do the grocery shopping. And of course revealed that there was no dollar and there was no grocery shopping and I sobbed and I was sent home. And I still remember very vividly to this day, but it was so clear to me and it's very illustrated in this book that you tell one lie, it doesn't stop. Then you get more questions and more detailed questions and you have to embroider on the lie and you have to come up with more lies. And pretty soon, the pressure, it's horrible. I mean, I do remember collapsing in tears and feeling, well, it was such a relief. It was -- even though I was caught it was better than having to live with those lies.
REHMJames Stewart, he's the author of a new book. It's titled, "Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America." We have an e-mail saying, "A reporter recently interviewed Madoff in prison and he spoke disparagingly about the dumb investors who gave him the money."
STEWARTWell, yes. It's true that Madoff has suddenly started giving some prison interviews. And let me tell you, he is still lying flagrantly. He gave a post-present interview to the FCC investigator and totally, he was again under oath. He lied again. Of course, what difference does it make? He's in prison for jail. We can't believe anything he says, but that -- when he said -- when he holds up his victims for contempt and he's also been extremely contemptuous of the FCC investigators who didn't catch him, this to me is just proof positive that we're dealing with a sociopath here. He is out at the extreme. I mean, one of the hallmarks of sociopathic behavior is not only a willingness to lie and fabricate, but then to feel absolutely no moral compunction about it.
REHMI find myself wondering how he felt upon learning his son had committed suicide.
STEWARTI've wondered the same question. He has not said much about it and he's given no particular signs that it's caused him any undo concern. But I don't want to judge him. I don’t know. I don't know what possible torment he might be going through, but all descriptions of his life in prison are that, you know, he's a -- he was a risk taker, he's a Wall Street trader, he made his bed. It worked out longer than he ever thought it would. He had a great life while it lasted and he's making the most now out of his time in prison.
REHMAnd we're paying for it.
STEWARTHe's in a minimal white collar facility that supposedly has the best healthcare in the American prison system and he's enjoying the fruits of this, while showing nothing. As I said, it's appalling to me that he doesn't even have the decency to show some remorse for what he did or concern about his victims.
REHMHere's an e-mail from Alan in Washington, D.C. He says, "As you discuss this topic, the examples you give will only be the ones actually caught or widely and publicly accused of lying. But at all levels of society, from the personal to the pious, lying seems not only tolerated, but embraced and often celebrated and rewarded."
STEWARTWell, that is all too true. And by the way, although the four headline characters in my book were caught or taken to task for it, I'm sorry to report that you will see scores of people lying under oath in this book for whom there was never any accountability. And in terms of the sort of applause that people get, I think a vivid example came in the Barry Bond's case. Recently, you know, the verdict came in the week before last. And his personal trainer, Greg Anderson, really could've resolved that case single-handedly. There was tremendous evidence that he was injecting him with steroids and supplying the steroids.
STEWARTSo when he was first called in for questioning, he lied about it. He brazenly lied. He then stopped talking. He went to jail for contempt of court for refusal to talk multiple times. And on one of those occasions, when he was released, all the prison inmates gathered around and gave him a standing ovation. Now, this to me, pretty much says it all. This is the code of the prison yard that if questioned you lie or you don't answer. You do not do your duty as a citizen and testify. And this is what our society will be like if we all embrace this.
REHMWhat about Marion Jones the Olympic track star?
STEWARTWell, just an amazing story and a very sad story. A brazen liar. As one prosecutor put it to me, we deal with lawyers -- liars all the time every single day. And she was world class. She was so persuasive in her false stories. She got caught up in so many lies she ended up having to plead guilty to just two. Then she was being sentenced and the judge said, you know, let me remind you that you're under oath in your sentencing. And in her statement, she tried to minimize her lies. She said, well, I now know that what I was taking was steroids, but at the time, I thought it was flaxseed oil. That is a lie. She's continued to lie in her autobiography. She's going around lecturing young people, she's lying. She seems incapable of facing the truth.
REHMThat's what I wanted to ask you about. How -- I mean, you're talking about perjury before a jury, a Grand Jury, breaking the law. But what about the fact that these people do get away with these lies from our highest levels down to young people? What kind of an example does that set for our young people today?
STEWARTIt's a terrible example and that's why although I'm only concentrating on the most serious criminal lying, there's no question that when those kinds of crimes are committed by people in these positions, it trickles down throughout society at every level and at every level of lying. That's why I think the sports case is so important because young people look up to these stars. And what are they seeing? The cheaters getting ahead. It infuriates me that the commissioner of baseball will not take away Barry Bond's homerun crown when it was clearly accomplished through cheating through the use of drugs and then lying about it. That crown belongs to Hank Aaron. That has an incredible effect on people.
STEWARTAnd then Martha Stewart infuriates me 'cause she keeps going around saying that she is persecuted for being a successful woman. That poisons the attitudes of society and that is a lie.
REHMHow does lying by prominent figures affect the jury pool?
STEWARTWell, it has a tremendous effect and I have a vivid illustration in the book of this. But what happens is jurors come to the conclusion, as many law enforcement people have, that, well, everyone's doing it. And although that is not technically a defense in a criminal case, it affects juror attitudes, it affects their deliberations. And there are jurors who simply will not convict when they believe someone has been singled out for prosecution and countless others have gone unprosecuted.
STEWARTI mean, the Barry Bonds hung jury on three issues is one example of that. There was another case involving Trevor Graham, where they had a photograph showing him with someone who he claimed he had never met. The jury wouldn't convict him on that because one guy and I interviewed him, said, I just wasn't going to do it. I realize he was guilty. I -- they proved it, but, you know, everybody was doing this. It's rampant and I'm not going to convict him.
REHMThe book is titled, "Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America." The author is James Stewart and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You know, I can remember my children when they were very young coming home and saying, well, everybody else can do it. And John and I would say, too bad about everybody else. You are you and you will not do that. So somehow that message has gotten lost.
STEWARTI know. That's a terrible problem. And when you see in these cases of lying, and it's often true of children, that the short term gain of lying seems much greater than the long term risks of telling the truth. And -- but that -- it's always going to be the case. It takes a lot of integrity and courage sometimes to tell the truth.
REHMAll right. Let's take some phone calls. Kevin in St. Augustine, Fla. You're on the air.
KEVINYeah, my point would be that it's just not as black and white as Mr. Stewart suggests. I mean, he seems to also be saying that, you know, the prosecutors never stretch the truth in order to win their case. I guess in my personal experience, I had to take the stand in a federal trial in my own defense for three and a half days on a federal -- on a services charge. I was a North Carolina Lottery Commissioner volunteer found basically accused of not filling out the form the right way and ended up doing three years of prison only to be totally exonerated last year. And I was also receiving an upward sentence because the judge said, well, I must've lied because I was found guilty by the jury.
KEVINSo when you try to defend yourself on the stand, your interpretation of events, especially in complicated white collar matters or political matters, may not match up with the interpretation of events by prosecutors. So it's just not as white -- you know, as black and white as I think Mr. Stewart is indicating.
STEWARTWell, I don't mean to suggest it's black and white, and nor do I mean to suggest that prosecutors are immune from this problem. Let me tell you, there is no one in the American society who is immune from this danger. And the problem, of course, becomes more acute if it shows up in law enforcement itself. And, you know, history is filled with some examples -- some very sorry examples of overreaching and overzealousness on the part of prosecutors. But this book is not really about prosecutorial misconduct. I could probably write a book on that. By no means do I mean to suggest that prosecutors are immune from the problem. On the other hand, in the cases I examine in great detail here, because they're role models and very prominent people, prosecutorial misconduct is not the issue.
KEVINI think we have an issue, though, Mr. Stewart, where there's so many law and order judges that have come on the bench lately who feel that, you know, anybody who is a defendant must be guilty. The juries typically view the defendant as guilty, otherwise, why would they be there in the first place? And so the interpretation of what is a lie has become almost nothing. I mean, I -- granted the examples you give are serious, but in some of the less famous cases, if you will, oftentimes that threshold is pretty darn low and the ramifications of it are severe, you know.
STEWARTWell, you know, nobody is -- nobody wants to see justice done more than I do. And what I'm exploring here, though, is the degree to which lying under oath completely undermines the possibility of getting at the truth. I mean, I don't care where it's committed, by judges, by prosecutors, by defense lawyers. All of it is damaging and no matter who does it, I feel we need to hold them accountable and we need to find ways of discouraging it.
REHMYou could actually write an entire book, as you've said, on prosecutorial misconduct. So Kevin's point is well taken. I also think about the way juries are selected these days with the help of psychologists, with the help of specialists who somehow get inside the heads of potential jurors before they are even seated. Thanks for your call, Kevin. And when we come back, we'll talk further with James Stewart about his new book, "Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America."
REHMAnd let's go right back to the phones to Winston-Salem, N.C. Good morning, Robert.
ROBERTYes. Good morning. I've been interested in this. You know, it's sort of interesting that this came up as a topic. Earlier this week, let me us myself as an example of what you're talking about, sir. I got sort of an embarrassing situation with my significant other and started to try to cover my tracks, as it were. And wanted to basically not be honest at all about it and I had to stop myself right in the middle and I got to the point of ending this and then I realized, you know, this is not right. And it's -- you know, and it was over something trivial, too. And I just turned around and said, this is not right and, you know, because it's true.
ROBERTOnce you start doing something like that, even for something small, you're not even thinking about it, it blows up in your face and you're going to end up basically being, you know, trapped in a web of deception and I sort of learned this myself. My mother was a schoolteacher and Diane said something earlier about her own children. When I was quite young, my brother and I found a wallet with money in it and my mother told us, you know, we need to find out where it went and we actually returned it to the police and finally was found. It had quite a bit of money on it, it belonged to an older lady who had lost her rent money.
ROBERTAnd in school that week, my mother actually talked about that to the other students and brought that up, what had happened and I remember that a lot of other students basically said, oh, you're stupid, finders keepers, losers weepers. And my mother made a point about how to keep something, even something that you found that's not yours is dishonest and that it involves, you know, lying because it's not yours and my mother made the point to all of us. She said, you know, the worst lie we tell is the one we tell ourselves.
STEWARTWell, that was a valuable lesson you learned and I think one of the great appeals of being honest is it's just so much simpler. I know in the Martha Stewart case, one of the big defense arguments was that, you know, these are very intelligent people, Martha Stewart, her broker, Peter Bacanovic, and how could they be so stupid as to tell such bad stories? But, you know, it's not just a matter of intelligence. Once you start lying and then you have to start following up on the lies and embroidering on the lies and telling more lies, especially when you're trying to coordinate with somebody else who's lying about it, it's almost invariable to me that the stories are going to go astray and you're eventually going to get caught.
REHMAnd a number of people have asked what you think about President Clinton, his lying about Monica Lewinski and President Bush's lying, though I'm not sure everybody would agree with that, about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
STEWARTAbsolutely, and I deal with both situations in the book because, you know, when you look at role models, as I said, who's a bigger role model than the top law enforcement officer in the United States, the president of the United States. And in Bill Clinton, we had a president who admitted to committing perjury and was very grudgingly apologetic about it and in a successor, George Bush, not only were there issues about whether he told the truth himself, but more importantly, he condoned lying when he commuted Scooter Libby's sentence.
STEWARTAfter saying he wouldn't tolerate it, he lifted his prison term. Now, Dick Cheney wanted him to pardon him altogether, but nevertheless, not making him go to jail when so many other people have to completely undermines any sense that people at the top really care about this problem. This has sent a terrible message to America and to the world.
REHMYou know, I'm thinking of all the television programs and movies I've seen where an individual goes to testify and of course, first thing he or she does is to put a hand on the Bible. Does the Bible or the Koran or any other religious book make us feel obligated to tell the truth?
STEWARTWell, I think for many people, it does. And interestingly, I've found that in the history of the crime of perjury, it was originally grew out of religious traditions and it was administered in the Ecclesiastical courts, for example, in medieval England. And it gradually moved out of the religious sphere into the secular, but the crime was considered a crime against God, that to take an oath to tell the truth and then not to do that was to violate a fundamental tenant of the deity, across all religions. But I think like so many things in religion, whether you're religious or not, these traditions grew out of a practical necessity that for us to live together in civilization, we could not have official lying.
REHMNow, how do you feel about the bishops or the priests who have looked the other way when pedophilia was involved? Is that lying on the same scale as what you're talking about?
STEWARTWell, there has been lying in conjunction with that scandal. Looking the other way, remaining silent about something that you know to be true in some cases does rise to the level of lying. I said, you know, law enforcement is not immune to this, the clergy is not immune to this and you don't even have to look to pedophile priests, there are other egregious examples of religious leaders involved in sometimes extra-marital affairs and lying about it. The religious community is not immune. No human being in any walk of life is immune from the temptations of telling a false (word?) and under oath.
REHMAll right. To Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Taylor.
TAYLORGood morning. My question was with all these people that have all this money, do they feel like they can lie and get away with it because they can basically hire this immense team of lawyers and stonewall themselves up behind and inside the judicial system and just kind of holed up until it blows over?
STEWARTYes. I think in many cases, that is true and it's not a completely unjustified belief on their part. I do feel -- I went to law school myself, I'm a member of the Bar, though I don't practice it now that I'm a journalist, but I feel the legal profession has a lot to answer for here. You see many examples of this book where these laws under oath took place with a lawyer, in some cases a very prominent, very highly paid lawyer sitting at the side of the person who was lying in circumstance where they either knew or should have known that a lie was about to be told.
REHMDo you believe that O.J. Simpson lied and got away with it?
STEWARTYes. I do.
STEWARTYes. I mean, I think the evidence is very strong on that.
REHMJohnny Cochran being that very, very high paid lawyer, the late Johnny Cochran.
STEWARTYes. And you mentioned jury selection earlier, the amount of money it takes to actually do one of those thorough analysis to the jury pool to get a sense of the psychology. That's only available to the wealthiest of defendants.
REHMAll right. To Palos Verdes, Calif. Good morning, Gerald.
GERALDHi. I think the basic question is, what's the good of being wealthy and powerful if you can't do the two things that other people aren't allowed to do? I'd say that for the past couple of decades, they've been pushing a kind of randroid Calvinism that basically says that the rich, and by extension, the powerful are a sort of elite for whom everything -- know that everything they have deserve and so this both means they feel they have the right and that also anyone who tries to stop them in anything they do is just some, you know, well, looter was the word Rand used, who's just trying to drag down, you know, the bright, creative people.
STEWARTWell, that's a really good observation and I realized when I asked my initial question about these people, like why would people with everything to lose take these risks, that I was probably being very naive and that yes, they do think that they're different. They have probably done these things and gotten away with it, which reinforces it. And as I said, they are surrounded by people who they pay, essentially, to tell them what they want to hear.
STEWARTWhat I find puzzling about your comment, and I think you're right in many ways, but one of the things that makes me proud to be an American is that we do strive to be equal under the law, that all people are equal under the law. I take personal pride in that, I feel that is a fantastic goal, even though I realize we don't recognize it. If I was tremendously wealthy, I cannot believe that I would feel any differently about that. In other words, to me, one of the pleasures of wealth would certainly not be to be able to hold myself and lord it over other people who don't have the advantages that I do. But I agree with you, there seems to be a steak in society that that's exactly what they want to do.
REHMThanks for calling, Gerald. But don't those people, like you and me, learn from how successful these wealthy people who are lying, I mean, they're successful at lying, so I, with no money, think, well, maybe that's the best way to go.
STEWARTWell, that's the danger. And I think that you see in these stories, these people have definitely embraced the idea that the ends justify the means. And one of the reasons I wrote this book and I feel so passionately about it is I think it's time to stand up and say, wait a minute, this is wrong and this should not be tolerated, we should not accept this, we should not be idolizing these people, we should not be worshipping them, we should not be in the position of they're telling us the preposterous stories and insulting our intelligent by expecting us to go along with them. Somebody has to stand up and say, this is fundamentally wrong. The ends do not justify the means and there's more to life than amassing everything that you can, in terms of wealth and power.
REHMAll of a sudden, I see those five tobacco executives testifying before the U.S. Congress, saying one after another, tobacco, nicotine is not addictive, when in fact, they had already had evidence from chemists, scientists, everybody that, in fact, it was. Did they go to jail?
STEWARTAbsolutely not. And it's a great example because -- and one of the things I'm trying to underline in my book is that the damage from perjury is not just to the judicial system, which is what lawyers and judges tend to focus on, it is so much bigger. It goes from shattering individual lives to, in the case of the example you just gave, lying about whether cigarettes harm people, killing, killing, what, millions of people lost their lives as a result of these lies? I mean, the consequences are vast, they're tragic, they're serious. What may seem like a small act, to give a false statement under oath, in it of itself is like dropping a pebble into the pond and the ripples go out further and further and further. And in many ways, they grow and become more damaging if they spread.
REHMHow do you believe Martha Stewart has been affected? She's still up there.
STEWARTWell, not only is she still up there, but she has said now, not only that she's innocent, that she was persecuted for being a woman, but that she now doesn't even remember why she was prosecuted. In other words, the whole thing's so trivial now, she can't -- she can barely remember it.
REHMForty-six thousand dollars.
STEWARTBut let me say, I don't really -- you know, Martha Stewart has to live with herself. If I -- again, I don't want to stand in judgment on her. I don't know what her daily life is like or what she thinks about, probably not this, but the destruction that she reeked is immense. Not only in the individual lives of people around her, the young assistant, her former secretary, the stock broker who ended up going to jail, but her company suffered incredible damage. The stock has never recovered. It's trading in the low single digits. Investors lost millions and millions of dollars. Her employees suffered through a tremendous amount, all for what? That she, her ego, could not accept, by the way, a very lenient plea bargain if she just admitted that she lied.
REHMThe book is titled, "Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America." James Stewart is the author and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now, to Kent, Ohio. Good morning, Jim.
JIMGood morning. Yes, Mr. Stewart, I'd like to know if you're planning a follow up book and if so, I think you might want to include my case in it. I'll give you a brief nutshell of what happened to me, how perjury destroyed my life. And that is I was visiting a friend at her house, her ex-boyfriend breaks in, attacks me with a chair like, "The Jerry Springer Show," I hit him with a baseball bat, broke his jaw. When the cops came, they arrested me, not him. And she's screaming at them that they got the wrong guy, but I go to jail, he goes to the hospital.
JIMAt trial, he told a whole different set of lies to the judge than what he told to the cops and I was convicted again. I mean, I was convicted, not again. And I was given probation over it because he did admit that he broke into the house, but he made it sound like he was just there on an innocent -- for innocent purposes to pick up his daughter and I attacked him with a bat for no reason.
STEWARTWell, your story sounds -- you know, I'm really sorry to hear that happened. It illustrates the problem, the injustice that results when people do lie and then apparently, as in this case, get away with it. Judicial system is designed to ferret out lying, but unfortunately, there isn't nearly enough done to follow up on it and hold those people accountable who do lie. By the way, there's no comfort to you, no doubt, but if you gave false testimony in medieval England that resulted in someone else getting the death penalty, then the sentence to you for lying was also the death penalty. They took it very seriously.
REHMAnd to Clinton, Conn. Good morning, Mark.
MARKGood morning, Diane. I'm an independent wildlife producer, I produce content for radio and so I have occasion to handle a lot of sound gear, including hydrophones, which are used to record underwater. And I believe it was yesterday you had Dr. Chew on and someone asked him about the Macondo Spill and he said, well, early on, it was confusing and they didn't really know what the volume of oil spilling out of that oil was and I know for a fact that a $375 hydrophone would've given you the acoustic picture. Actually, you would've needed probably three of them, of exactly how much oil was flowing.
MARKSo my point is not so much that, which is getting to be old news, unfortunately, not if you live in the Gulf, but -- or if you're a whale trying to navigate through it, but that when deception, for the sake of money and power, emanates from the very top of the government and people within it are unable to tell the truth, even when the truth is known, I wonder what chance the rest of us have.
REHMIt's a good question.
STEWARTThat's a good question and it's a good observation. And one of the reasons that I'm so disturbed by this tendency and the fact that people are increasingly just shrugging and saying, oh, well, it's another lie. It's another lie under oath. What can you do about it? Well, I think you can do something about it, as I said, we as individuals can do about, but I wish the president of the United States would speak with clear and moral authority on this whole subject. Bring some cases that would send the message, reiterate how important this is and say, we're not going to accept the status quo, that we're going to do something about it from the top and that we all, as a nation, have to join together and do something at the grassroots level as well.
REHMJames Stewart, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 -- sorry, in 1988 for his reporting on the stock market crash and the insider trading. His new book is titled, "Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America, From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff." I hope your book makes a big impact, James.
STEWARTThank you so much.
STEWARTAnd so do I.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is email@example.com and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
Most Recent Shows
Trump impeachment witness Fiona Hill on what her own background says about this political moment, and why she thinks the greatest threat to American democracy now comes from within.
Cities and states across the country are exploring reparations programs for Black Americans, but not all reparations advocates think it's the right approach. Diane talks to Mayor Daniel Biss of Evanston, Ill., and William Darity, Jr., and Kirsten Mullen, the co-authors of the book, "From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century”
The New Yorker's Evan Osnos traces the roots of divisions in the U.S. from 9/11 to January 6. His new book is "Wildland: The Making of America's Fury."