Jewish World Review Dec. 15, 2004 / 3 Teves, 5765

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

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FREE MARTHA! | This is a country of hooligans, hatemongers, murderers, rapists and illegal, no-bid government contracts. We are at war, in debt, uninformed and unsympathetic with the poor and uninsured among us.

We litter, lie, cheat and jaywalk. We don't read, walk or care one whit about aesthetics. We fight one another for parking spaces to buy Made in China, then refuse to pay a living wage to our own workers.

But the world is safe and secure for our brand of democracy because Martha Stewart's in jail for Christmas.

I don't pretend to spend every waking moment wringing my hands about poor Martha's Christmas in prison. I know she went in a rich woman and will leave a rich woman. I know she'll get a book deal out of the experience.

But I do believe it's unfair. And when I unpacked and hung the ornaments, shook the snow globes and tried my best to plan a party menu, I suddenly got really mad.

Free Martha Stewart!

She didn't inherit great wealth, trample on co-workers or exploit the poor or old to get ahead. She didn't rape the forests, drill for oil in the Alaskan wilderness or charge obscene interest rates and late fees for moneylending. Martha didn't clear-cut the countryside and throw up an ugly, redundant shopping center.

She earned her money in a new, old-fashioned way. She was hardworking, imaginative, bold and smart. She filled a niche. She created a market. She inspired millions. Her product and process were environmentally safe.

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Martha was downright ladylike about amassing her fortune. Her themes were home, hearth and how to make them sparkle.

Because of Martha, domestically challenged women like me now know how to fold a fitted sheet, make a snow globe from glycerin and a baby-food jar, fashion a wreath from what's growing in the yard and, best of all, tie a mean bow.

Because of Martha, we know to put the dishwashing liquid in a decorative bottle, so that even the mundane, repetitive chore of cleaning up after supper becomes pleasant.

Because of Martha, we know that overnight guests appreciate a fresh flower by their bed, and that a mudroom doesn't have to be about mud.

Martha made plenty of money, yes, but she wasn't all about spending it. She taught us how to be elegant on the cheap, and that shopping at a discount store didn't have to end with a buggy full of ugly colors and tacky goods.

Martha contributed. She added style and beauty to the landscape. She got filthy rich doing it. She became well-known.

In this country, money and celebrity add up to power. And a powerful woman in the United States is an instant target for every misogynistic politician or power-hungry bureaucrat who ever wanted to be on TV.

Superwoman Martha, the boys had to figure, would become an object lesson for the rest of us. If you lie to the government, you go to jail. It doesn't matter if you're a domestic diva or simply a domestic. Go directly to jail. Do not collect $200.

Not to say it couldn't happen to a man. Willie Nelson is proof that the government will go to great lengths to spank and dethrone an everyman hero to illustrate any number of points.

But, Willie freely admitted he owed the taxes, though I do believe he didn't know it till the IRS told him.

Martha's case is different. For one thing, she's in prison. She acted on a stock tip and then lied about it to the feds. Most of us previously assumed that's what all rich people do at fancy dinner parties — swap stock tips and help one another get richer.

So I say, either free Martha Stewart or throw every man and woman who ever took a tip from a friend or lied to the government in the cell with her. That would be one crowded cell.

A lot of women take this case personally, I can say safely. Because we all owe Martha. And we miss her, especially at Christmas.

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© 2004, Rheta Grimsley Johnson Distributed by King Features Syndicate