Freedom, justice, and Martha Stewart.

Freedom, justice, and Martha Stewart.

Freedom, justice, and Martha Stewart.

Policy made plain.
July 3 2002 1:35 PM

It's Good Enough

Freedom, justice, and Martha Stewart.

Like every political journalist, I have always wanted to write a cookbook. Mine would be called The Good Enough Cookbook (subtitle, "When 'good enough' is good enough") and it would not contain any actual recipes. Instead, it would have detailed instructions for how to skip steps and cut corners and generally simplify the recipes you find elsewhere.

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When, for example, can you substitute peanut butter (or those phony liquid eggs in a milk carton, or beer) for ingredients that may require a special trip to the Trendi-Mart? Is there any culinary disaster that cannot be salvaged by liberal dousing with balsamic vinegar? Do you really have to steam the vegetables separately?

The answer to the last question is yes, you do have to, if you want the dish to turn out as the recipe's author intended. But this is dinner, not constitutional interpretation, and the author's original intent doesn't particularly matter. The dish undoubtedly will turn out better if you meld the anchovies, the chocolate, and three teaspoons of vodka, using a mortar and pestle, before gradually stirring in the veal stock, the soy milk, and the rest of that liter of vodka. But if you just dump all the ingredients—minus a few morale-boosting slugs of the vodka—into the blender and then floor it, the result will be OK. More precisely, it will be good enough. Julia Child will not be coming tonight. More important, neither will Martha Stewart.

The guiding philosophy of the Good Enough Cookbook is to seek out ways one can, say, put in half the effort and get three-quarters of the desired result. The guiding philosophy of Martha is to seek out ways one can gain a 10 percent better result by doubling the effort put in. It is important to understand that the Martha method is not a complete waste of time. It does make things better. It probably even makes life better. But the Good Enough method is good enough.

So, the media have missed the real significance of the fall of Martha Stewart. As the British writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft once described the joy of American liberals when Nixon resigned, this Martha moment is "a landmark in the history of schadenfreude." But the pleasure Americans feel when they imagine Martha Stewart being led away in (tasteful, homemade, mother-of-pearl) handcuffs is not just about gloating. It is about liberation.

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What, after all, do Martha Stewart and the Big Five (… four … three …) accounting firms represent in common? No, not greed. Well, not only greed. Anyway, greed is a sentiment as nearly universal as schadenfreude. The correct answer is that they both represent standards. Martha's mission is to impose and enforce impossibly high standards in the details and accoutrements of everyday middle-class life. ("The Queen of Perfection," Newsweek's cover labeled her.) Accountants, especially corporate auditors, are hired almost solely to assure the world that the client's financial disclosures meet not just the highest standards but—more important—the same standards as everyone else, so that comparisons will be valid.

It dawned on the accountants in recent years that being the designated driver during a carnival of financial drunkenness isn't cool, but they could become quite popular by lowering their precious standards just a hair. It remains unclear whether Martha Stewart has done anything actually wrong. But it is apparent that she does not bring to her financial affairs the punctiliousness she displays when wrapping the dog's biscuit in lace or sprinkling oatmeal with gold dust.

So, welcome to the era of lower standards. "It's a good thing" is yesterday.  Tomorrow belongs to, "Oh, heck, it's good enough." This doesn't mean it is OK to cook the books. It means that if you do cook the books, it is OK to overcook or undercook them a bit. Either way, it's good enough. Some readers may recall the glorious moment when they realized you don't actually have to use hospital corners when making the bed. From now on, until the culture shifts again, every day will be like that.

What could be more relaxing—or a better gift of freedom, just in time for July Fourth? After all, which is a more oppressive force in the lives of average Americans: some restrictive reading of the First Amendment by the Rehnquist Supreme Court, or the elaborate mythology that has grown around the notion that certain patterns and colors of clothing supposedly "clash" (I believe that is the word) with others?

Breathe free, Americans. In the coming era of Good Enough, nothing clashes. When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for a man to wear a tie, the back part may hang as much as six inches below the front. All gifts will be gratefully received without wrapping paper. Preheating the oven will be exposed for the con that it is.

Thank you, Martha. Thank you.