Engraved on his tombstone
by David A. Andelman
James Stewart could have been a lawyer, indeed for a brief time was in fact a lawyer. But he clearly should not have been a lawyer.
“I could tell you many stories that are unfortunately protected by the attorney-client privilege. But the behavior I saw there was like a postgraduate education in rich people behaving badly,” Stewart told the May luncheon meeting of The Silurians Press Club, describing his early days in a law firm—New York’s patrician Cravath, Swain and Moore (though in fairness he did not cite this firm in his talk). “Almost all of our clients were guilty. I saw that firsthand, and it was a little discouraging over the years to work and devote yourself to advocating on their behalf and then see them actually get off without having to pay any price for the bad behavior.”
Which says a whole lot about how Stewart instead became a journalist and the bane of so very many of his erstwhile colleagues. What he also learned from his earliest experience with the law, was “if you don’t love what you’re doing, it’s very hard to compete successfully with people who do love what you’re doing.”
James Stewart clearly loves taking down a whole lot of people who very much deserve being taken down. From his first real journalism job as executive editor of American Lawyer under the indominable Steve Brill, last month’s Silurian luncheon guest as winner of the Peter Kihss Award, to the Wall Street Journal as page one editor to Smart Money magazine which he founded, and now to The New York Times as a columnist, he has never stopped taking down the high and the sometimes mighty. And much of his more elaborate takedowns have come in the pages of his nine books—from Den of Thieves and Disney Wars to his most recent, Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy that he wrote with co-author Rachel Abrams.
In his latest work, what started as a tale of sexual predation by one executive, Les Moonves, quickly morphed into a far larger and more epic tale of greed, lust and corporate malfeasance. “I was getting information that this was something very different than public perception had recognized,” Stewart observed, describing “a treasure trove of documents, emails, information related to this story” that began tumbling into his hands and those of his co-author. If you had any doubts about diving into this book, let Stewart’s confession offer a modicum of reassurance: “I can promise you, there are some astonishing actual events in there, I have to admit, and I think I have I’m pretty grown-up, and I’ve seen a lot in my life, but there were some things we just could not put in on grounds of taste.”
As for his main characters, Stewart seemed most sympathetic to Shari Redstone. “She was treated horribly. Sumner is a horrible person. Let me just say that flat out, and he treated her horribly, and yet she loved him. I think a theme in the book is the power of that. Sort of familial relationships. The father-daughter relationship, her craving for his love and approval which goes right up to the very last scene of the book, and I think anyone can empathize with her.”
Stewart wrote his latest book, as he did with his entire career-long oeuvre of ten volumes, with the voice of his first editor, the late Alice Mayhew, echoing in his mind. “She said never write a book because you think it’s going to be a best-seller. Write a book that you love writing, a book that you believe in, and then who cares whether it’s a best-seller. You have sitting on your shelf for the rest of your life, a book that you can be proud of. And by the way, who knows after your long gone, it could still be discovered, and people will recognize it for the great book that it is. I’ve taken that to heart and repeat that to my students at every opportunity.”
As for what would he like as his epitaph? For that, he would have to go back to his seminal work on Michael Milken and the decades-long court battle it took for him finally to win vindication for all he had written. “The judge wrote an amazing opinion in which he said, not only had I not been negligent in what I wrote, which would have won the case because gross negligence was the standard, but everything that I wrote was correct,” Stewart smiled thinly. “I’ve often said that I want that opinion engraved on my tombstone.”