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Martha Stewart and the Pros of Being a Con

By Tina Brown
Thursday, March 3, 2005; Page C01

The Jail Thing is working so well for Martha Stewart it may become the PR strategy of choice for other public figures who have run afoul of the image police.

Jennifer Lopez didn't have to go to all the trouble of designing a new fashion line, toiling over a new album and rebounding into a doleful marriage to Marc Anthony. She should just have stood up in court and said, "Your Honor, I committed the crime of being on the cover of Us magazine with Ben Affleck 100 times too often. My lips were too shiny. I made horrible movies. For my penalty I accept five months in Alderson jail in West Virginia."

Martha Stewart is returning to her New York estate on a wave of goodwill generated by her stint in prison camp. (Mike Segar -- Reuters)

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Ditto Bernie Kerik. Why hang around waiting for some fresh embarrassment to surface? Just tell it to a judge: "Your Honor, I milked the 9/11 aura once too often. I shilled for Bush on cable shows past the point where I was bearable. I refused to admit that Homeland Security czar was where my overreach had hit the ceiling. As penance, I will be a stand-up guy and do my 90 days in the image clink."

It used to be that going to jail gave a positive aura only to moral gurus, spiritual leaders and revolutionaries. Gandhi in a British raj prison after the Salt March. Martin Luther King Jr. and the pantheon of civil rights heroes. Lenin in Siberia. Eugene V. Debs, polling nearly a million votes from his cell in 1920. Vaclav Havel. The ultimate: Nelson Mandela, from breaking rocks in solitary for 27 years to state president and sainted father of his country. But all that was before the Age of Privatization. Now it's vanquished CEOs and burned-out celebrities getting the martyr's halo. The new century's "Letter From Birmingham Jail" could be from Paris Hilton, via her T-Mobile Sidekick.

The useful thing about going down for a few months is it fast-tracks the process of Humbling Up. A spell behind bars can be the equivalent of a visit to the Betty Ford Center for status abuse. The biggest peril of multiple media is multiple resentment. It was never Martha's public that forsook Martha. The women who followed her went on liking her recipes, her products and her domestic advice. That's why, despite three years of the hazing of Martha herself, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia hung in there when everyone thought it was doomed to go the way of Bon Vivant. Like the Cheshire cat, she was able to disappear, her annoying, controlling personality vanishing from view, leaving only the smile behind.

Martha's offense was a crime of lifestyle for which she's already overpaid. She was just doing what the rest of her set was doing. People don't forgive such people their trespasses; they envy them. How many of us even have the opportunity to abuse executive authority, or manipulate markets? The level of venom Martha experienced was all about how she made every other mini-player in the media firmament feel like a wallflower. Status rage is always the ugliest.

There's a strange lightness now to all the coverage, like the lifting of a curse. As Martha Agonistes she is finally interesting for reasons other than envy. She's been through something the tabloid narrative can agree is "real." Jailed women are the stuff of country-western songs, not Bobby Short doing Cole Porter. All the manic goodwill about her release this week demonstrates the national need for a theater of atonement. It's as if jail time is the only thing that eases the pangs of a culture jealous of its own excess materialism.

You can see why prison might actually be a rejuvenating experience for Martha. Cruelty toward public figures in trouble has gotten so out of hand. No mug shot could be worse than the bleak portrait of Dan Rather in this week's New Yorker. No treachery from the cons inside could be more wounding than the harshly dismissive comments about Rather by Mike Wallace, Don Hewitt, Walter Cronkite and Andy Rooney in Ken Auletta's piece that accompanied it. As for Michael Jackson, three days into the trial it had already degenerated into a Roman bacchanalia of media sadism. "Jacko Is Blubber Boy" ran the New York Post headline yesterday after he wept in court.

Prison can at least shut out all that. Once those big steel gates are locked, they effectively silence the moralizing of the pundits, the gassing of the cable shows, the baying of the blogs, the torment of the tabs. Only the chosen few are on the visiting list and all they are appointed to bring is good cheer.

At Alderson, Martha Stewart has mixed with women who never have a visitor from one year to the end, women who have nothing to return to when they come out, women who think Martha Stewart is so lucky and clever they just want to learn everything she has to teach them. Maybe she has learned a thing or two herself. As a friend who recently visited Martha told me, "It's amazing. After everything she has been through there is no stress on her face."

© 2005, Tina Brown

© 2005 The Washington Post Company