Martha: An Admirable Loon

Martha Stewart
Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and

Now I know why so many people love Martha Stewart -- and why so many people can't stand her. In the span of just a few minutes Wednesday, in front of a national audience, the renowned dean of the "domestic arts" demonstrated yet again her distinctive brand of loony nobility that has made her both an icon and a felon.

She was strong but goofy, humble but defiant. She laughed and told jokes even as she acknowledged that she would go to prison right away as a monumental sacrifice to the company she loves and founded and which bears her name, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc.

She seemed near tears but had a smile on her face as she announced to the world that she would serve her sentence even as she appeals her federal obstruction conviction.

If lawyers and business gurus were watching the announcement for clues about what it would mean, legally for Stewart and financially for her company, the psychotherapy industry should have been tuned in, too. Martha Stewart is a living, breathing, walking, talking therapy session and Wednesday she offered the most concentrated example yet of why this is so.

Bravely accepting her fate, Stewart also found the time during her press conference to declare that she will "miss all of my pets. My two beloved, fun-loving dogs, my seven lively cats, my canaries, my horses and even my chickens."

Even the animal lovers among us ought to be able to stipulate that it's a little weird to be worrying about the chickens when you are busy packing for the Big House in Danbury, Conn. or wherever else the Bureau of Prisons wants to send you.

Stewart immediately followed the animal section of her statement with this: "It's odd what becomes of immense importance when one realizes one's freedom is about to be curtailed, and it is frightening and difficult to have to grasp these realizations."

Now, I think it is fair to say that anyone facing five months in federal prison -- even a minimum-security prison -- would struggle to "grasp" the "realization" of losing liberty. But surely Stewart wasn't saying that she has suddenly realized that her pets are of "immense importance" to her life, was she? Not that there is anything wrong with that. It's just an odd thing to say to the world when you declare you are going to turn yourself in to the authorities.

Stewart also said: "I am very sad knowing that I will miss the holiday season: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, always an opportunity to celebrate family, friends, religious traditions that mean so much to many of us." That's obviously a perfectly sweet and noble sentiment and one that Stewart has almost literally patented.

But then the domestic diva said -- tongue only barely in cheek -- that she decided to go to prison now because "I would like to be back as early in March as possible to plant a spring garden and to truly get things growing again." Betcha the women in Stewart's as-yet-undetermined cellblock were laughing over that one if they were able to watch the press conference on television.

The point here is not to bash Stewart for her eccentricities. They have helped make her a huge success and they have helped distinguish her from the many other business big shots who never show even a glimpse of frailty (or personality, for that matter).

Stewart sounded Wednesday like a woman who had read a book titled: "How To Behave At Your Press Conference When You Say You Will Go To Prison But You Don't Want Anyone To Get Maudlin About it." She sounded like Martha Stewart talking about Martha Stewart.

Yet when I hear Stewart talk on what surely is one of the worst days of her life about planting a garden next spring, it helps me understand the strength and resolve and, let's face it, the utter insanity it must have taken for her to have created the empire she did.

I don't criticize her for that. I admire her for that. And I think I "get" her more than I have before. That doesn't make her public comments Wednesday any less weird. But it does place them into some sort of context and perspective.

Stewart did the right thing Wednesday. She put her company's financial interests and the interests of its shareholders above her own legal interests. She gave her beloved, beleaguered company the gift of certainty and the gift of time.

Now everyone knows that Stewart will be back up and running next spring -- at a time when her appeal surely will not yet be resolved -- and that the "down time" caused by Stewart's own misjudgments will be lessened accordingly. Even as a purely legal matter, Stewart's decision isn't rash. She probably won't win her appeal anyway but at least now the federal appeals judges looking into her case may have some sympathy for her that will translate into judicial action.

Stewart is where she is today -- a convicted felon about to be fitted for a prison uniform -- because she made a series of terrible choices and exercised extremely poor judgment. Today she made a very reasoned, measured and honorable choice. It makes me think she'll be back on top sooner than we all think, which is good news for her and good news for those "lively" cats of hers.

By Andrew Cohen