Career moves

March 05, 2005

EDWARD T. Norris, the former Baltimore and state police chief and a convicted felon, turned up this week on a local radio talk show. The gig is short-term, unpaid and a bit painful to listen to. But employers haven't exactly been knocking down his door since he was put on home detention in Tampa in January after serving six months in federal prison. A top cop banged for misusing public funds has been reduced, at least for the moment, to a minor-league G. Gordon Liddy.

Perhaps Mr. Norris should have undergone a Martha Stewart prison makeover. Style diva and mega-marketer Stewart, released from federal prison in West Virginia early yesterday morning, appears primed to return to the public spotlight as a bigger brand than ever.

Two TV shows -- a daytime talk fest and her very own version of Donald Trump's The Apprentice -- are in the works. Her magazine and many others are already back to highlighting her, with such delightful tidbits as how she supplemented her bleak prison fare by foraging for dandelion greens and crab apples. Her company -- Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, indeed -- has been hemorrhaging money the past two years, but almost inexplicably its stock is soaring again, turning Ms. Stewart once more into a billionaire.

Remember, this is the home-and-garden perfectionist who at least half of America not so long ago loved to parody mercilessly, if not outright hate. Now, even before she's left the slammer, she's on the cover of Newsweek. (Or at least that's her face, which that news magazine plopped on a photo of someone else's body.)

Who among us hasn't sinned and sought some form of redemption? America loves a comeback. She has been so annoyingly perfect that it took prison, and likely a legion of PR agents working overtime, to soften her hard-edged image. Her game plan -- quick display of controlled contrition, immediate submission to doing the time, and back in action for spring planting -- was executed, well, perfectly.

Perhaps it also was the abstract nature of Ms. Stewart's felony: obstructing an investigation into a suspected insider stock sale, a high-roller, seemingly victimless misdeed. By contrast, former police Commissioner Norris' crime can be cast as having had "custom shirts made out of a widows and orphans fund," as he recently acknowledged to Sun reporter Ryan Davis. Ouch.

Thus during last Thursday's noon hour, Mr. Norris, via a long-distance connection, could be heard trying to get an often somber word in edgewise among the hyperactive babbling of his radio hosts. Amid the unintelligible jokes and uncomfortable remarks about how the former chief could use a proper job came a wistful moment when he reflected on his current straits: "Hey, you never know where you end up."

Mr. Norris even had his own theory about the sharp contrast between the immediate outcome of his prison term and Ms. Stewart's: "She's an entertainer, I was a public servant," he said, adding in a falling voice: "You want to come out of it like her."

Not that -- come to think of it -- the two don't have plenty in common. Both have well-earned reputations for toughness. Both have a taste for high (though of course differing) styles. Both haven't shown much remorse. And both, in their own ways, are on the make again.

So here's a thought: Ed, how would you like to get back in the big time as a contestant on Martha's version of The Apprentice? And Martha, it's clear you could do a lot worse than a former top cop with a weakness for custom shirts.

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