Review: Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America

In “Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff”, author James B. Stewart argues that an epidemic of lying under oath is sweeping across the country, and challenges the United States government to take steps to prevent perjury from undermining the justice system for good.  The book consists of four recent cases of perjury: domestic goddess Martha Stewart, Vice Presidential advisor Scooter Libby, baseball sensation Barry Bonds, and Wall Street tycoon Bernie Madoff.  The cases detail a culture of lying that spans from the early 2000s, when Martha Stewart and her accountant Peter Bacanovic first engaged in insider trading and subsequently conspired to hide their actions from the government, to the more recent case of Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff.  Stewart lays out the cases in extraordinary detail, relying on exclusive interviews, trial transcripts, and FBI interview notes, among other sources.  

Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America: from Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff, The Penguin Press, 2011, 496 pp.

Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America: from Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff, The Penguin Press, 2011, 496 pp.

Each case is told as a story, including background information, atmosphere, and dialogue from recorded meetings and trials. The reader is quickly drawn into the compelling stories behind the high-profile defendants of each case and the people surrounding them. Stewart explains the complicated details of often very technical indictments in layman’s terms, giving the average person a chance to intimately understand how such powerful figures were found to have lied repeatedly under oath.  While several of the characters become protagonists with whom the reader sympathizes, notably Douglas Faneuil, clearly the main source of information in the book for the Martha Stewart section and whistle-blower on the ImClone insider trading, the author does not find the actions of Stewart, Libby, Bonds, or Madoff forgivable.  It is interesting to see each story through the lens of perjury, as Stewart explains that in several cases much more serious charges could have been leveraged against the defendants, if not for the lack of usable evidence. For someone without a law background the cases provide a fascinating glimpse into complex legal procedures and how they have at times hindered our justice system.

Stewart attempts to warn the reader of the consequences when one action spirals out of control by detailing how individuals in several industries found themselves at the center of an ever-increasing web of lies.  In the case of Martha Stewart, for example, Stewart and her accountant Bacanovic were found to have constructed an elaborate story about why she had sold ImClone shares just before an FDA decision sent the stock plummeting, and both stuck to their version of events to the very end, even as an increasing number of witnesses were able to disprove it.  A central theme to the book is why powerful figures continually lie and how it affects those around them. The author does sometimes push his message a bit too hard by openly praising those who eventually came out with the truth, even if they themselves had been part of the original cover-up.  

While the book does an excellent job of making the cases accessible to the public, although sometimes in a very long-winded manner, Stewart could have included more thoughts on the background of perjury and its importance today.  After over 400 pages devoted to the cases, a mere 10 pages are given to the conclusion, which amounts to little more than “Don’t lie to the government, and if you do, come forward immediately.”  Although the subtitle of the book is “How False Statements are Undermining America” the author only mentions in list form other high-profile cases of political perjury, including that of President Clinton.  Each case detailed in “Tangled Webs” emphasizes the sheer number of people who can unwittingly become involved in government inquires, sometimes accidentally lying to the government themselves in the process. However, Stewart does not make it clear how perjury is truly “undermining America.”  Although lesser known cases may not be as interesting to the reader, including one such case might have helped his argument, as could have including statistics on perjury, and specifically perjury in the political realm.  Saying this, if Stewart’s only intention is to make clear how easy it is to uncover a pattern of lies, he has certainly succeeded. 

Due to its broad scope from the variety of cases examined, the findings in “Tangled Webs” can be applied to many fields.  For example, a psychologist might look at the psychology of lying, to deduce why people at the top of their game feel the need to lie to protect their image, even when telling the truth would usually be much less consequential.  The book could be used in branding studies, as the Martha Stewart and Barry Bonds sections are especially relevant when exploring carefully polished images of brands, and how personalities can become so entwined with the brands they represent.  Additionally, all cases emphasize the role the media plays in high-profile scandals, with journalists sometimes even being forced to choose between betraying their journalistic ethics or going to jail to protect a source, as demonstrated by Judy Miller of the New York Times in the Scooter Libby case, and the San Francisco Chronicle reporters who refused to identify the leaker in a steroids-related trial.  Stewart implies that the media’s scrutiny of high-profile cases can be detrimental to not only the case but also the individuals involved, as the defendants may feel pressured by the media to lie to protect their own images.  In the more politically centered cases, those of Scooter Libby and Bernie Madoff, lying under oath had broad ramifications outside of their immediate circles, including a loss of faith in parts of the Bush administration. This was somewhat exacerbated by the media’s coverage of the incident.  

The political implications of perjury are also explored, as Stewart questions the decision of President George W. Bush to commute the 30-month jail sentence given to Scooter Libby, and urges future administrations to take a more active stance on persecuting perjury. He shows it to be a crime that is both serious in its own right, and often leads to the discovery of more serious criminal activity.  Throughout, “Tangled Webs” provides a strong argument for a reconsideration of several elements of America’s political systems. This includes questioning the bureaucracy that can overcome a case even when the evidence of wrongdoing is insurmountable, as with the Security and Exchange Committee’s numerous investigations of Bernie Madoff, which failed to uncover his vast crimes. 

Although it can be difficult at times to keep up with the numerous players in each part of the book, “Tangled Webs” appeals to a wide audience, and is a fascinating dissection of these prominent instances of perjury in our justice system and their continuing implications.  Anyone with an interest in law, public relations, politics, or media studies would greatly benefit from reading this book, which effortlessly pieces together thousands of pieces of evidence into several extremely compelling accounts.