America's Top Liars

Clockwise from upper left: Bernie Madoff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Barry Bonds, and Martha Stewart. Illustration by Gluekit; source photographs clockwise from top: Hiroko Masuike / Getty Images; Gerald Herbert / AP, Jeff Chiu / AP; Andrea Renault / Polaris

Clad in a dark suit and purple tie, Barry Bonds walked out of a San Francisco courthouse last week, capping years of near-total seclusion. But although he may be cleared of perjury charges, the home-run king (and presumed steroidal hulk) shed no new light on the alleged lies he told a 2003 grand jury. For that, one has to turn to James Stewart's Tangled Webs, which throws open the doors on the Bonds case and three other blockbuster trials—with previously secret testimony, exclusive interviews, and investigators' notes. Stewart reports that Bonds told the grand jury why he refused to let his personal trainer and friend testify, yet never rewarded him for his loyalty. "I'm black," he says, "and I'm keeping my money. And there's not too many rich black people in the world … And if my friends can help me, I'll use my friends."

That's not the only delectable line in Stewart's epic. Through three decades, eight books, and countless articles, the gentleman scribe has made exposing liars the leitmotif of his career. Just don't ask him to explain why. "It's in the Ten Commandments!" he exclaimed recently over a plate of candied-almond pancakes. "Do you want to see what a society looks like where everyone lies? It's horrendous! It's corrupt!" It's also America, at least as Stewart presents it, sounding the alarm on "a surge of concerted, deliberate lying" at all levels of society. When done under oath, it's a felony punishable by up to five years in prison (downgraded from the old English preference for cutting out the liar's tongue or making the offender stand with each ear nailed to the pillory).

What concerns Stewart the most isn't the everyday street criminals who blinker cops but white-collar royalty, those at the pinnacle of media, politics, sports, and business, who are supposed to be role models, not rogues. Although there are no data on this clean-handed corruption, Stewart believes it's on the rise, threatening to swamp the legal system, stymie the courts, and sow cynicism nationwide. Ultimately, he argues, "it undermines civilization itself." That's a grand statement. Limited to the kind of blockbuster cases that Stewart examines, however, it's hard to deny its essential truth. Lying under oath is poisonous to a society rooted in fair play and rule of law. And when the most public of liars aren't pursued and punished, more lying ensues, reducing the chance of any one person getting caught and encouraging still others to deceive.

Good thing, then, that we have Stewart to play The Ethicist, retrying Bonds but also Martha Stewart, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and Bernie Madoff—and nailing some ears to the post. "Somebody has to," says Stewart, elegantly dressed in jacket and tie. All of Stewart's subjects have already been convicted of perjury (or a related crime), but what Stewart does is pinpoint the moment when each person parted ways with the truth. The results are startling. Media mogul Martha Stewart tried to shake insider-trading charges by destroying evidence in her assistant's calendar and concocting a story with her equally culpable broker. Former Cheney adviser Libby created "a parallel universe," complete with a fictitious conversation with the late Meet the Press host Tim Russert, to avoid admitting that he leaked the name of a CIA agent for political gain.

In the last chapter, Stewart rakes the case of multibillion-dollar fraudster Madoff, somehow finding new façades used to fool the Securities and Exchange Commission. In 2004, for example, SEC investigators obtained emails from the top-flight hedge fund Renaissance Technologies that questioned Madoff's stellar returns. When they confronted Madoff, he turned the conversation into story time, regaling the younger investigators with swashbuckling tales of Wall Street glory. When pushed, he explained his success in terms of "cooking a meal," albeit one involving "a blender" and "carrots and oranges and a whole bunch of stuff." Then, he got concrete: "Some guys have more guts than others," he explained, and "some people feel the market."

The SEC, to its credit, sensed only bull, and by 2006 it had evidence of Madoff ladling it out under oath. At the time, his scheme involved about $20 billion. When it collapsed two years later, it had tripled to $65 billion, a fact that leaves Stewart aghast at the SEC. "Failing to pursue [Madoff's] lies cost innocent victims another $45 billion," he writes.

But what can we really do about it? Stewart itemizes the contributing factors of perjury, including unscrupulous defense lawyers, overworked prosecutors, and a collective shrug from the culture at large. These days loyalty has replaced honesty as the highest virtue. But he acknowledges a still bigger problem with snuffing it out: people themselves. Lying seems to be an inherent part of human nature—something that we're all capable of when pushed. Most people have never been tried the way Stewart's subjects have been, never had to choose between what they perceive to be their careers or their friends, and the truth. Not even Stewart has been put to such a test—and he's not so sure he'd pass. "One would like to think," he confides, but "there for the grace of God go all of us."