Martha's burden: mental weight of a lie

Like Martha Stewart, when I was first caught by the Securities and Exchange Commission, in a highly publicized insider-trading scandal 20 years ago while a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, I lied.

With five minutes' notice, I found myself in a phone interview with a federal investigator, my boss listening on the other line, being asked questions about my relationship with a stockbroker that I didn't want to answer. So, I lied.

Unlike Stewart, within weeks I decided to tell all, surrendering my phone and bank records, publicly apologizing for my bad judgment. I was prepared to take my punishment, which turned out to be nine months in Danbury (Connecticut) Federal Prison Camp.

Stewart's conviction brings into sharp focus two essential elements of the social contract in our culture:

• Without trust, that contract is broken.

• We are a people who look for opportunities to forgive.

What we can't forgive is unrepented lying, nor should we. There are no clearer examples of this than the decidedly different outcomes of the public missteps of Stewart - who lied, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger - who confessed.

Lying about important things is dangerous and degrades the human spirit. It clouds the conscience and distorts decisionmaking. Martin Luther, the 15th-century monk who risked his life to challenge a corrupt Catholic Church, wrote extensively about conscience, including one of my favorite quotes: "A bad conscience can only make men cowardly and fearful."

Lying causes needless grief, as Stewart has discovered and will spend the rest of her life regretting.

Caught dumping stock of drugmaker ImClone ahead of bad news, Stewart concocted a cover story. She lied to investigators. She tried to weasel her way through it. She insulted the US attorney and the SEC, and they slammed her.

Suppose, when the SEC first came snooping around, she had clapped a hand over her mouth and cried, "Oh, my God! What was I thinking?" Suppose she had agreed to undo the transaction, or pay a fine, or donate to a charity the $46,000 she saved by selling her stock before it lost 18 percent of its value. Suppose she had issued a press release explaining and apologizing to her shareholders?

The whole episode might well have blown over in a few weeks. She'd have been seen as just another victim of Imclone CEO Sam Waksal. She might have saved herself half a billion dollars in net worth, millions in legal fees, and her position as chairman and CEO of her company. She might even have enhanced her credibility.

When the Los Angeles Times exposed Arnold Schwarzenegger as a serial groper - a far worse offense, bordering on sexual assault - did he realize what he was doing by confessing and apologizing? Or was it just a good instinct? The stunned media hardly knew how to report the story. Political pundits congratulated him for his refreshing candor but predicted it would damage his chances of winning the California governorship. They were wrong. Voters rushed to the polls to forgive him.

The defining moment of that scandal came shortly after the election, when Mr. Schwarzenegger, concluding a press conference, was asked about the allegations of womanizing. The question was shouted as he headed for the door, and without breaking stride, he called back over his shoulder, "Old news."

At first it sounded like an arrogant thing to say. But on second thought, it hit me that he was right. There was no more news. Even if a hundred more women came forward and accused him of sexual harassment, he'd already issued the blanket confession ("Yes, I have behaved badly sometimes.") and the all-purpose apology ("I'm deeply sorry about that.")

Should we all run around confessing our sins and begging forgiveness? Probably not.

But in most situations, I'm convinced it's less costly to tell the truth and get on with life, even if it means doing some time.

South Dakota's former congressman, Bill Janklow, roared through a stop sign in 2003 and mowed down and killed a motorcyclist. A notoriously fast driver, Janklow got off to a clumsy start by lying to the cops at the scene. Later, he concocted a flimsy excuse - he was in diabetic shock and couldn't think straight.

Janklow insisted on fighting the case, lost on all counts, had to resign his seat, and went to jail - exactly what would have happened if he'd confessed in the beginning.

Had Janklow taken responsibility for his behavior (surrendering his driver's license right there on the shoulder of the road, resigning his congressional seat that afternoon, making an immediate financial settlement with the victim's family) and begun clearing his conscience, he'd probably have earned a good dose of gratitude from his community for doing the right thing after doing a very bad thing. Sure, they'd say, he messed up - but look how honest he's been and how hard he's trying to make up for it.

And if he'd won his case? I wouldn't want to be that Bill Janklow - recklessly killing an innocent person and getting away with it sounds like a lifelong emotional ball and chain.

There are signs, like Schwarzenegger's lightning apology, that our culture of automatic denial - lie now, concoct later - is giving way to a common sense of responsibility.

One example is how the healthcare system is starting to look at medical mistakes due to human error. Each year about 90,000 patients die in American hospitals as a result of human error, mostly by doctors, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Hospitals, doctors, and their insurers almost always fight these cases with guns blazing. But some hospitals have figured out that covering up and hunkering down is bad business.

UCLA Healthcare, a California-based chain of hospitals, recently adopted a new policy: "To create a culture that encourages reporting and learning from mistakes, near misses, and mishaps by creating a blame-free environment." UCLA doctors who have accidentally killed or injured patients are encouraged to own up to their mistakes and promise to try harder next time.

You don't have to commit perjury, slaughter an innocent, or kill a patient to be hobbled by a bad conscience. People make mistakes in every aspect of life. We respect honesty and we like to forgive. It's a simple concept that Ms. Stewart can still embrace, anytime she chooses.

R. Foster Winans, an author, lecturer, and commentator, is founder and chairman emeritus of the Writers Room of Bucks County, Pa.

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