TERRE HAUTE —
The truth of the matter is, lying has consequences.
Pulitzer Prize winning author and New York Times columnist James B. Stewart offered an honest look at the trend of dishonesty inside Tilson Auditorium Thursday. His new book, “Tangled Webs: How False Statements are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff” was featured as part of Indiana State University’s speaker series.
Prior to the speech, Stewart explained that his latest book, which chronicles the epidemic of perjury in American society, has its roots in the financial scandals of the late 1990s. From MCI WorldCom to Enron, those years found Stewart writing about one corporate calamity after another. But regardless the industry sector, each seemed to have one thing in common — dishonesty.
“When we drill down to the root of these scandals, it’s all about lying,” the veteran journalist and lawyer said.
Stewart won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his work at The Wall Street Journal covering the stock market crash and insider training. A graduate of DePauw University and Harvard Law School, he belongs to the New York bar and holds the Bloomberg chair at the Columbia University School of Journalism, where he serves as a professor while writing a column for the New York Times.
Ultimately, the responsibility to uphold honesty as a virtue lies with the individual, he said. Americans must hold liars, and those that enable them, accountable.
“We can’t police every statement in America. We can’t police every statement made under oath,” he said. The public must embrace its “shared commitment to truth,” which is the bedrock of civilized society, he said.
During his speech, Stewart acknowledged the problem of perjury is nothing new for human beings. From the Ten Commandments to Roman civil law, English common law to the modern U.S. legal system, the importance of honesty has been recognized throughout history, he said.
A native of Quincy, Ill., Stewart remarked on his own upbringing which emphasized “Midwestern values,” explaining the importance of truth was drummed into his head at an early age.
But somewhere along the line, the public seems to have excused dishonesty by the wealthy and powerful, he said. Worse yet, they seem to expect it.
Recounting how former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards coerced a staff member into falsely swearing he’d fathered his own baby with a consultant, Stewart noted that Edwards’ wife was dying of cancer at the time.
“I can’t imagine perjury getting any lower than that,” he said, adding federal law enforcement officials have told him they go into work expecting people to lie nowadays.
And these aren’t “little lies,” he said, explaining the dire consequences they can have for innocent people.
In his book, Stewart examines the cases of four perjury cases, those of Stewart, former White House official Irv Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Major League Baseball player Barry Bonds, and Madoff. The lies of these people wound up destroying the jobs of their employees and costing investors billions of dollars, he said.
“These lies cannot happen in a vacuum,” he added, explaining that each of the individuals involved relied upon a number of “enablers” who went along, perjured themselves, and supported them in their efforts to lie under oath.
Chuckling as he spoke, Stewart observed that one need only look at photographs of Bonds while playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates juxtaposed with those of his days with the San Francisco Giants, to know he’d used some kind of performance enhancing drugs. But for nine years, Bonds and his “enablers” hosted the “World Series of lying” about steroids, costing taxpayers valuable court time and further eroding the public’s confidence in athletes, he said.
In the case of Madoff, accused of running a Ponzi scheme for nearly 20 years, fraudulent behavior ended up costing his investors some $45 billion, he said. Those investors included retired firefighters, school teachers and police officers, he added.
After her conviction, the share value of Stewart’s company fell from the $50 range to single digits. Employees lost jobs and shareholders lost their investment, he said.
Individuals with money and power often feel they’re special, he said. Surrounded by people who support their every word, they feel entitled to do as they please. And given the money they’re paying attorneys and other workers, a team of loyal followers help keep up the mirage, he said. But inevitably the loyalty only runs one way, and individuals from Bonds to Stewart leave their entourage in the lurch.
“So the simple answer to why they lie is because they thought they could get away with it,” he said. Despite the unbelievable alibis and egregious fabrications, all four individuals featured in his book really thought they’d beat the system right up until the judge’s gavel sounded, he said.
The “ominous trend” involved needs stopped immediately, he said. Instead of “rule by law,” the country runs the danger of a “prison yard code” where the powerful coerce others to do their will. Preventing this begins with individuals refusing to go along with the lies told by others, and choosing to refrain from lying themselves, he said.
Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.