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Joanna Weiss

Ruth Madoff, cashing in on shame

Ruth Madoff and her son look for the sympathy factor

(AP)

IF RUTH Madoff is really playing for national sympathy, her turn on “60 Minutes’’ Sunday night didn’t help. She was monotone, barely emotional, and half-amnesiatic as she reflected on the last three years of her life, since her husband confessed to running the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. And any plea for privacy was offset by the reason she was talking: to promote an authorized family biography, which came out yesterday.

Proceeds from the book, CBS said, will not technically benefit Madoff or her son, Andrew — but in a nifty paperwork trick, her son’s fiancée will be able to cash in. On principle, then, this seems the sort of tome that should be borrowed from the local library. Even so, its appeal is a mystery. If the point of the Madoffs’ publicity blitz is to swear they knew nothing about the $50 billion swindle, then what do they have to say, beyond a catalogue of riches gained and lost? They’re literally banking on schadenfreude: America’s prurient interest in watching someone fall.

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There is soap-opera precedent for this — not to mention “Trading Places’’ — though Ruth Madoff has hardly hit rock-bottom. A government deal, in which she forfeited claim to some $80 million in assets, left her with a paltry $2.5 million. We know that she has already shed penthouses and vacation homes, drives a ’96 Infiniti, and lives in a small apartment in Boca Raton. If she wants to hang out on a yacht, or in the South of France, she’ll now have to mooch off one of her friends.

Except that she’s now a pariah in her former circles, given some lingering resentment over that whole decimated-net-worth thing. Which seems, from Ruth Madoff’s standpoint, to be a large part of the problem. Apart from the truly tragic suicide of her other son, Mark, her fall is largely a social one.

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As Matt Taibbi wrote in RollingStone.com last week — in response to charges that “Occupy Wall Street’’ is driven by class warfare — Americans don’t really hate wealth. Everyone loves an up-from-the bootstraps entrepreneur; nobody complains that Steve Jobs was rich. People just hate cheating, Taibbi wrote, and the too-big-to-fail, consequence-free, irresponsible behavior of some notable Wall Street players.

But at a certain level, wealth itself can be part of the problem, if it shifts incentives, drives people toward unsustainable short-term gains, steers them away from self-reflection. Many question whether the Madoffs knew what Bernie was doing all along, but I find that part of their story completely believable. His fraud wouldn’t have been possible without willful ignorance from its many beneficiaries.

There were red flags everywhere, after all, down to the intense security around Madoff’s office and the fact that he never talked about succession. But who’s going to ask questions when you need Dad’s help with your divorce settlement, or you have a penthouse to decorate, or you’re enjoying the social cachet of being married to a financial star?

It takes a certain amount of inner strength to pull the plug on that life, to admit to wrongdoing and accept the consequences, and that’s another part of Ruth Madoff’s story that rings true. Her quasi-defense of her husband is that his driving force wasn’t greed. It was lack of character.

“I don’t think the money was the part of it,’’ she told Morley Safer. “I think he got stuck, that’s what he said, and he didn’t have the courage to face things when they might have been able to be faced on a smaller scale.’’

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Once the consequences were faced, Ruth Madoff said, Bernie seemed relieved. Word is that he’s surprisingly content in prison, where he doesn’t have to keep up massive lies. And in a way, life on the outside is the trickier part. Ruth Madoff’s $2.5 million is hardly hardship territory, but if she wants to stretch it out for 30 years and pay for a really nice nursing home, she might have to get a job. Maybe Neiman’s is hiring sales clerks in the Boca Raton mall.

Of course, she could just hope that this biography sells big, that there are film rights down the line, that Faye Dunaway wants to play her in the movie. And in a way, cashing in on the family name is the most fitting route for an uncourageous bunch. The longer the Madoffs stay in the spotlight — for luxury’s sake — the longer everyone remembers the shame.


Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.