Shamed -- and ready for redemption

Martha, Hillary and the death of the "gotcha" moment.

By Tina Brown
June 20, 2003 1:22AM (UTC)
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Now that she's actually been booked, fingerprinted, mug-shot and perp-walked, the domestic diva Martha Stewart is finally getting more vocal support.

She's been charged with securities fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice -- all of which she allegedly did to cover up insider trading, a crime they didn't indict her for. This is a twist that lends the legal circus the flavor of an Upper East Side "Les Miserables." It helps, too, that the lean and hungry prosecutor, James Comey, is 6-foot-8 -- a nice casting detail for a looming fanatic.


It's puzzling that a marketing genius like Martha -- perhaps it's a sign of unusual psychic disarray -- took so long to fire up the activist Web site now besieged with supportive e-mails.

High-flying women who have hitherto been low-key about Martha are now roused to come out of the woodwork, too. The combative radio talker Laura Ingraham, author of that pitiless book on Hillary Clinton, announced on my CNBC show the other night in a conversation with the writer-director Nora Ephron and Whoopi Goldberg that Martha was getting a "bum rap. She's a mogul. People resent her."

Nothing aggravates the media like poise and professionalism in a woman. Martha's relentless composure -- her asset before, as she smiled competently from the top of her empire of household synergy -- has turned into an insurmountable P.R. negative.


"She pissed the wrong people off," Whoopi Goldberg commented with a sage look over her wire sunglasses, "and now, you know, they're biting her in the ass."

It's easy to piss the wrong people off these days. The sheer volume of media means that hype quickly reaches a critical mass and implodes. Mild irritation with a ubiquitous celebrity like Martha can rise to guillotine levels of hatred when their presence becomes inescapable. This has drastically accelerated the arc of rise and fall.

The blog phenomenon has also made it so there is no such thing anymore as "local." Once upon a time, stars happily went off to foreign film festivals to plug their movies, get laid and give the kind of pretentious interviews no one wants in the American tabs. Outlets like the French newspaper Liberation, Germany's Die Zeit, and that arty-looking supplement in Holland that fashion editors always drool over need something subversive to sell to their audience. American jingoism is a profoundly uncool marketing tool in old Europe.


George Clooney and Dustin Hoffman were, I am sure, playing the site-specific game when they went to the Berlin Film Festival in February and dared to make a few controversially hostile remarks about the pending war in Iraq. Picked up worldwide and reproduced instantaneously, the shit storm haunted them for months.

Ditto the Dixie Chicks debacle: Natalie Maines probably thought she was giving the band a bit of London edge when she trashed George W. Bush. Sen. Trent Lott's offhand tribute to Strom Thurmond's racist past at Ol' Strom's 100th birthday last year was his ham-fisted way of bringing a happy glow to a half-comatose wheelie. Lott should have known that once this was pumped up 24 hours a day on the Web sites it would forever outfit his reputation with a Ku Klux Klan hood.


All of this is wreaking havoc with such arcane civilities as "off the record." Risqué, well-lubricated after-dinner musings from a guest of honor that used to be passed around afterward among a few "in-the-know friends" are now megaphoned on every talk show. Tony Blair's close advisor and ex-cabinet minister Peter Mandelson has generated so many lip flaps one now has to assume he plans it that way. In the '96 campaign, Bob Dole stifled his dark, irreverent sense of humor because, he told a mutual friend, it was too darn risky.

As for Hillary Clinton, on every one of the talk shows she relentlessly followed the same checklist of scripted responses -- Bill was a Viking, I was shocked, I wanted to wring his neck, I was disappointed, etc. -- thus breaking the big-time publicity-blitz code that you always hold back a little something to give each show its own exclusive morsel of news.

Never again will Hillary risk the kind of spontaneous, "this is how I am and if you don't like it too bad" utterances that nearly derailed her husband's first presidential campaign. No more "I could have stayed home and baked cookies" that riled full-time homemakers. And no more "I am not some Tammy Wynette standing by her man" that annoyed loyal spouses and, worse, country music fans.


The power of the "gotcha" incident is that the very casualness of its provenance works to make it seem a moment of truth. What the gotcha moment inevitably misses is that when people move around, it's part of normal social interaction to say different things and behave in different ways with different people. That's why compartmentalized groups of a person's friends rarely like each other much. And why funerals, when they all show up at once, can be such a social shock.

It is especially hazardous for that poor beleaguered beast, the political candidate. If you get caught altering your act for different constituencies you're denounced as an unprincipled panderer. But if you can't alter your act you come off as tone-deaf, and you might as well forget about raising money.

Hillary is being mocked for her overpracticed performance. Martha has been relentlessly pegged as a steely-eyed, unfeeling automaton. America's confessional society wants celebrities to bleed but kills them when they act natural. Hillary had her outing in the tumbrel and was humiliated with Monica. That redeemed her. As Nora Ephron noted, Martha Stewart's indictment means that finally she can be seen as a victim. And of course the number of positive editorials about her, like Hillary's back then, have instantly spiked.


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Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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