They are not a crook
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – So sad, skinny, scurrilous Sam Waksal got taken away to prison. The judge wasn't very nice to him. Threw the book at him. Aside from the impact on those near and dear to him, that has to worry his friend and fellow former ImClone shareholder Martha Stewart. The diva of domesticity was indicted, of course, on a number of counts, none of them very pleasant. Her fantasy jail cell is already making the rounds on the Internet, and it's very funny, except, I am sure, to her.

As you recall, the queen of propriety is accused of doing nasty stuff that in the end netted her $60,000 or so. At the time of the transaction, her company was worth about $1 billion. Now it's valued at half that. This seems like bad business. The government says she conspired with her broker to cover up the transaction and was generally uncooperative with their mission of safeguarding the securities markets. She succeeded in annoying the government and neatly turning a civil matter criminal, much as one would transform a pile of relatively innocuous ingredients into a poisonous Bundt.

Everyone is innocent until proven unpopular in this country, so let's state right up front that nobody except the polls is saying Martha is guilty of anything other than public self-destruction. The same goes, I guess, for all the corporate executives now awaiting trial around the nation. Nothing has been proven against them, unless it has, and good luck to them all, except the ones that don't deserve it.

So, freely admitting the possibility that Martha will be triumphantly cleared and stride from the courtroom into a sunshiny future in which she is again at liberty to concentrate on her salad, one may still ask some questions. Such as: Why do people do these things? For such tiny gains? To have it all and then blow it so spectacularly? What's up with these guys?

That is an important issue, I believe, because in studying the self-immolation of characters whose strengths and flaws are writ large, we may better understand our own tiny selves and perhaps become wise enough to at least avoid the perp walk.

It all comes down, in the end, to myths--personal myths they create and then, tragically, come to believe.

There's the Myth of I'm So Smart. These guys think they're brighter, quicker, and sharper than everyone else. And they are, until they're caught. Then they look stupid. Before they look stupid, though, they think they can get away with just about anything because other people are stupid. And they're right, I guess, because everyone's stupid, when you get right down to it. Unfortunately, that's true even of people who are smarter than everybody else.

This belief in their superiority leads almost directly to the Myth of Awesome Invulnerability. These guys have fought and clawed their way to the pinnacle of power over the bodies of others less intelligent, resourceful, and just plain lucky than they are. Bullets have whizzed past their ears. Corpses have fallen before them on the staircase to the top. After a while they come to think that nothing can harm them. And nothing can. Until it does. Then they're really, really surprised!

And outraged. Not only because this is an assault on the Myth of Never-Ending Good Fortune but also because it does violence to the Myth of Perpetual Entitlement. It isn't really that they're greedy, I don't think, although they're as subject to that flaw as anyone else. And it isn't that they need the 60 grand or the next $100 million either. They just feel deeply that they're always entitled to more. Until they're in danger of being convicted.

Then the Myth of the Infinitely Manipulatable Universe comes in. Our friends have always been able to triumph over the world by shaping it to their ends. Their personae have mutated again and again as they reimagined themselves and then went out and feng shui-ed their local cosmos from the ground up to meet their needs. They screamed at others and saw them bend. They didn't cheat, exactly, because they created and recreated the rules. Now they find themselves smacked in the face with laws they didn't make and can't bend. That seems unfair after a lifetime otherwise.

So at last, passing through the Myth That I Can Get Away With Anything and the Myth of Tragic Persecution of Greatness via the Myth That I Have Suffered Enough, they arrive at perhaps the most useful one of all: the Myth of Divine Resurrection. Sitting, waiting for the ordeal to be over, the great ones nurse their hurts and know, in the place where their heart might be, that they will be back--deeper, sadder, wiser, and just as smart, invulnerable, entitled, manipulative, and successful as ever. They know it. And that knowing can sometimes make it so, eventually.

Until then, there's always the Myth of Sweet Revenge to get them through those winter nights in the hoosegow. God, how their enemies will suffer! Life is long. And sometimes myths do come true.

Watch them.

By day, Stanley Bing is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at