Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 12 April 2024



America in the Age of O.J. Simpson


(7 min)

O.J. Simpson surrounded by his defense attorneys during his murder trial in Los Angeles, Sept. 28, 1995. Photo: SAM MIRCOVICH/Associated Press

Our crazy country. The O.J. Simpson case was the beginning of knowing we were crazy and admitting it. It was 30 years ago this June, the murder followed by the Bronco chase, and I find myself wanting to tell those who weren’t there what a sensation it was, what an amazement.

Everyone over 40 this weekend will be saying, “I’ll never forget when I heard the verdict,” and, “Did you watch the Bronco?” The case burned itself into our retinas; everyone in the country was in the path of totality.

As much as anything and more than most, the story was the beginning of the modern media age. It was the beginning of hypercelebrity and marked by the emotionalism of crowds. Crowds ran to California freeway overpasses on June 17, 1994, to see the Ford Bronco containing Simpson roll by, surrounded by police cruisers. They cheered and pumped their arms. They didn’t see it as a tragedy, the story of the beautiful young woman and mother, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her 25-year-old friend, Ron Goldman, who had been brutally stabbed to death. They saw an exciting drama unfolding before their eyes, like Al Capone shooting his way out of a bank heist surrounded by cops. Simpson was a guy everyone liked. So they cheered. And people watching thought: Whoa, what are we seeing, what is this?

Some new kind of fame was being presaged. A close friend of O.J.’s, Los Angeles lawyer and businessman Robert Kardashian, an apparently quiet fellow no one had heard of, was thrust into the case from the beginning. At a news conference he read a public letter from O.J., just before he turned himself in. The letter said he had nothing to do with Nicole’s murder. “I loved her. . . . If we had a problem, it’s because I loved her so much.” It was classic abusive-husband patter.

Kardashian, like other O.J. attorneys, would become famous, and the fame would be a lesson to many. After fame comes wealth and power and everyone gives you a good table. It is probably true that none of this was lost on his former wife, Kris, who had been one of Nicole Simpson’s best friends, or on his children, Kourtney, Kim, Khloe and Rob. Their show, “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” debuted in 2007. They were the first reality-TV family, famous for being famous. They are billionaires now.

“It marked the end of cozy, afternoon soap opera entertainment and ushered in a tabloid culture of Kardashians, Jenners, and lesser beings,” former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter said by email. “Also, it made, for a time, Dominick Dunne the most recognized print reporter in the world.” Dunne’s colorful and breathless reports each month in Vanity Fair covered the case like a blanket—who snubbed whom in the courtroom, who said what at Brentwood’s glittering dinner tables.

The O.J. case didn’t create mass celebrity, Hollywood did, in the 1920s. At that time a young teenager named Bette Davis went, on a lark, to a fortune teller in her small New England town. She recounts in one of her memoirs that the fortune teller read her palm and was puzzled: Your face will be famous in every corner of the earth, she said.

Davis thought that was silly, you can’t be famous everywhere. Then, in 1930, at 22, she walked onto her first Hollywood sound stage. Her mind immediately flashed back: This is what the fortune teller meant.

But that kind of fame took art or gifts or a talent. Now you could be just another crazy American and become a worldwide name.

If the signal moment was the Bronco chase, it was the court case that would have lasting significance. It was a prime example of how our legal system got bogged down in distractions, inanities, and poor police and legal work. It dragged on nine months. The judge, Lance Ito, also became a celebrity, and apparently liked it. He kept three open computers on his bench. No one had ever seen that before. Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” had a regular sketch, the “Dancing Itos.” There were endless, meandering objections. The prosecutor, Marcia Clark, had to get her hair and makeup done, and a new wardrobe.

And the cast of characters! Kato Kaelin, the house guest who never left. Mark Fuhrman, the police detective who seemed solid on evidence and then was torn apart for having once used racial epithets and was accused of planting evidence.

And the phrases that bubbled up from the courtroom and entered the national consciousness: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

And, of course, the terrible and historic moment when the jury announced its verdict.

The trial felt like it had gone forever but the verdict came in within a day. No one in America did a bit of work from the moment it was announced that the jury had a verdict. Everyone ran to a TV set. From Robert D. McFadden’s O.J. obit in the New York Times: “Even President Bill Clinton left the Oval Office to join his secretaries. In court, cries of ‘Yes!’ and ‘Oh, no!’ were echoed across the nation as the verdict left many Black people jubilant and many white people aghast.” Exactly true.

A friend wrote Thursday afternoon: “Trial as spectacle has been with us for a long time (think Lizzie Borden), and so have juries doing unusual things. But this seemed to take it to a new level. If memory serves, the volume of the New York Stock Exchange went down to basically nothing for a few minutes as the verdict was announced. That’s real.”

Reaction famously fell almost completely along racial lines. It was one of those 20th-century moments when you realized race is here to stay as an unending factor, an unyielding actor in American life. White and black saw two different realities. Whites: All the evidence points to his guilt, he’s one of the most admired men in America, race isn’t the story here.

Blacks: This is what you do to black men, you railroad them on cooked-up evidence, there’s plenty of room for doubt.


It showed in some new and unforgettable way the divided country. The verdict itself didn’t divide the country; it revealed it, again and not for the last time, as divided. Reaction was called shocking, revelatory. But what it was, was simpler. It was painful. It left you with a tight and mournful feeling in your throat.

Before O.J., American blacks lacked confidence in the legal system. After O.J., everyone lacked confidence in the legal system. It looked cynical, performative, agenda-driven, not on the level.

I would say he got away with murder because I believe he was guilty. But in a way he didn’t get away with it; it stalked him the rest of his life. And that is tragedy, too, because he’d been such a hero, a winner of the Heisman Trophy, a football star, a man of great accomplishment whom everyone admired.

That’s all.

The O.J. case revealed so much and started a new age. Within a few years the internet would become ubiquitous, and at that point the new age would become more so.

Wonder Land: Whether it’s members of Congress, protesters in the street, even golf tournaments—it’s hard not to notice the rising tide of jerk-like behavior. Images: Storyblocks/TikTok/BidenHQ Composite: Mark Kelly

Copyright ©2024 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

No comments:

Post a Comment