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Martha Stewart in Chains and Paul Wellstone in Agony

by Steve Perry

Alas: the pitter-pat of shuffling feet on the stair that Martha Stewart hears each day when she awakes is not the stirring of guests invited for a festive country weekend; it’s the SEC closing in. Last month ImClone boss and “family friend” Sam Waksal (her daughter’s boyfriend, later her own) took his perp walk for the cameras on insider trading charges. A few days later the story was that the Feds had turned at least one of Stewart’s own pals, a woman who flew to Mexico with Martha on Stewart’s private jet the day her ImClone sale was executed.

Delicious, isn’t it? Martha summed up better than anyone the consumption side of the long ’90s boom. Not least among her achievements, she figured out how to play both ends of the street. To the masses who bought up her branded Kmart merchandise she peddled a vain and costly domestic fantasy; to the moneyed would-be gentry she offered a practical primer on the good life. It proved so lucrative in part because it tapped a market-driven article of faith rigorously foisted on fortunates and unfortunates alike in the ’80s and ’90s: There really is nothing you can’t buy if you’ve got the money-style, grace, dignity, domestic tranquility, you name it. At bottom, like all timeless hucksters, she was selling a sense of personal completeness and substance.

Turns out it was all pretend, right down to the paper fortune Stewart amassed during her day in the sun. So far her stock in her own company has dropped over $300 million in value, and she may be facing time in one of those minimum-security facilities whose d?cor she could do so much to enliven. All this over a smarmy little insider transaction that saved her about $200,000 in stock losses. If you aren’t gratified by what’s become of Martha Stewart, you just aren’t paying attention.

Don’t bet she’ll scrape by on the strength of her money and clout. If the order of the day is a few show trials to quiet public outrage, what prosecution could possibly be showier than Martha’s? One can already imagine the indictment, the death-plunge of MSO stock, even the eventual plea agreement, filed on the finest linen stationery with inlaid flowers pressed by Martha herself.

AFTER LAST MONTH’S column on Paul Wellstone’s silence concerning the business scandals, I got a testy email from a Wellstone staffer, larded with press release attachments that demonstrated the senator’s fierce and fearless leadership. Wellstone has spoken against corporate abuses on the Senate floor, I was informed, not once but twice-and, more impressive still, he spoke forcefully each time.

Naturally I felt mortified at my own hubris. Who was I to criticize Wellstone’s leadership just because I hadn’t heard a peep about it myself? Had I scoured the full menu of his press releases? Had I pored over member comments on the Senate floor? No. But in my own paltry way I did try. I looked at various news archives and Wellstone’s own Senate website. Before its content was frozen by election rules round about early July, it contained no word about corporate accountability that I could find, not even one of the press releases-each surely more forceful than the last!-that are the sine qua non of his leadership. All I can say is that I’m sorry, Paul, and in the future I’ll bear in mind that the mere fact of being invisible doesn’t make you any less a leader.

Now, in mid-August, Wellstone’s campaign website is screaming boardroom larceny front and center. Lovely. Better late than never, and better a little than nothing at all: That’s the central refrain of Wellstone’s Senate career and the only credible slogan on behalf of his re-election campaign. I’ll still vote for him if I vote at all, but I won’t venture out just to pull the lever for Paul. And in that I doubt I’m alone.

The other day I spoke with Bill Hillsman, the political ad consultant who played a vital role in electing Wellstone the first time. “I was thinking about some of the ads we just murdered Boschwitz with in ’90,” Hillsman smiled ruefully, “the print ads where we talked about his being in the Senate for 12 years and never getting anything done. And I thought to myself, good Lord, what would happen if someone did that same ad now with respect to Wellstone’s record? It would probably be no better, maybe in some cases worse.”

Steve Perry is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch and a columnist for The Rake. He can be reached at: sperry@mn.rr.com

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