Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book on famous liars

I was just reading last year's Tangled Webs: How False Statements are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff by James B. Stewart:
With many prosecutors, investigators, and participants speaking for the first time, Tangled Webs goes behind the scene of the trials of media and homemaking entrepreneur Martha Stewart; top White House political adviser Lewis "Scooter" Libby; home-run king Barry Bonds; and Wall Street money manager Bernard Madoff.

Stewart's main argument that Bonds lied is this quote from a judge in a different steroid case:
And that's a very difficult thing to believe; that a top-notch athlete, knowing the razor-thin margins separating the best from the others, would not be keenly aware and very careful about what he or she would put in his or her body and recognize the effects immediately on their performance. ... I am troubled, quite frankly, by the statement." [p. 349] [again on p.359]
This quote appears twice, and differs slightly from elsewhere.

This is no argument against Bonds. He admitted to taking the "clear" and the "cream". He had no FDA approvals or scientific publications or big pharma guarantees or personal biochemistry knowledge to go on. He trusted someone. Maybe it was Greg Anderson, maybe Victor Comte, maybe someone else. We don't know for sure. Whatever the details, here was a top-notch athlete who was putting substances in his body without being keenly aware of what those substances were and what they could do. No one did, as the substances were unknown to modern medicine.

It is safe to say that Bonds thought that the substances would do some good, or he would not have been taking them. But athletes commonly take vitamins, food supplements, spices, special foods, homeopathic remedies, etc. in the hopes that they will be helpful. These beliefs seem to be largely superstition to me. So it is possible for top-notch athletes to not recognize the effects of what they take. It is plausible that Anderson assured Bonds that the substances were worthwhile, and Bonds told the truth.

James B. Stewart fails to mention that Secret Service agent Larry Stewart was charged with perjury for his testimony against Martha Stewart. None of these Stewarts are related, as far as I know. Martha Stewart was convicted of lying in statements that were not under oath and not recorded, and she was not accused of perjury or insider trading or of benefiting from her lies. It seems more significant to me that the prosecution lied under oath in order to put someone in prison.

The case against Libby was even stranger. As the book explains, Libby's defense was not only that he told the truth, but that he said what was necessary for the public to learn the truth about the Iraq War, with Plame's husband telling unrebutted lies to the press.

The core of Libby's conviction is that he had a telephone conversion with CBS's Russert on the day the Wash. Post released a column naming Plame as working for the CIA. The conversaion had no bearing on the column, but Russert and Libby gave different testimony about whether Plame was mentioned in the call.

I see 4 possibilities. Maybe Russert or Libby had faulty memory, or maybe one of them lied.

It is plausible that Russert lied because he had an obvious motive. If he had known about Plame, then he would have been forced to testify about his confidential source. He might have ruined his career, jailed like Judith Miller, and incriminated his source.

Libby had nothing to gain by lying because he had already admitted that he had learned about Plame before talking to Russert. It is possible that Libby lied and somehow thought that the lie would help Karl Rove, but I doubt that Libby would lie to save Rove.

It is plausible that Libby misremembered, because Libby may have mentally prepared himself about what to say if Russert mentioned Plame. Months later, Libby could have confused what he said with his prepared scenario.

Madoff told lies that cost billions of dollars and caused misery to a lot of people. Even if M. Stewart, Libby, and Bonds lied, I do not see how any harm came to anyone. Stewart may have sold stock based on an insider tip, but it was bad info and she would have been better off holding onto the stock. If Libby were lying to prop up the Iraq War, I would want to punish him for that, but his case had no bearing on the war or on anything else, but the career of an over-ambitious prosecutor. Even if Bonds lied, he did not interfere with shutting down Balco or banning steroids. Not even the baseball authorities say that he did anything wrong. He was not convicted of lying. He was only convicted of giving an evasive answer to a question before the grand jury. That conviction ought to be reversed on appeal, because not even the prosecutor seemed to think that the answer was incomplete.

The book has a lot of detail about these 4 cases, but fails to get to the substance of the matters. What were the lies and who were harmed by them? I guess the author is trying to make the case that we tolerate liars too much, but I see it differently. First, if these folks lied so badly, then it should be possible to prove that they lied. Second, perjury is lying about a material fact. The Ten Commandments do not prohibit all lying. Just bearing false witness. M. Stewart, Libby, and Bonds were not witnesses to anyone but themselves. Libby was disliked for the Iraq War, and Bonds was disliked for breaking Babe Ruth's records. I believe that these prosecutions were driven more by politics than by actual lying.

The hot dishonesty trials of today are Roger Clemens and John Edwards. The evidence against Clemens is that his trainer got immunity for testifying that Clemens used steroids. It seems like just the word of Clemens against the word of the trainer to me. Either one could be lying. I believe people are innocent until proven guilty.

Edwards is a snake, and transparently phony. Or so I thought. Millions of Democrats thought that he was fit to be President because they thought that he had empathy for the poor. He certain lied about his affair, and let his rich friends spend millions to cover up his recklessness. But I do not see how he committed a crime.

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