Crumbling Pedestals

June 18, 1994

Even before charges were lodged against O.J. Simpson in the killing of his ex-wife and another man, and before the football star disappeared, people all over were shaking their heads.

This wasn't some kooky rock star with whom many people could not identify. It wasn't about the travails of a politician, of whom people often think the worst. Nor about some spoiled millionaire athlete who was likely to self-destruct all along. This bad news involved that rare breed of celebrity who fused fame and grace.

Orenthal James Simpson won the coveted Heisman Trophy award as a football player for the University of Southern California and went on to become one of that sport's biggest stars, playing for the Buffalo Bills and in the twilight of his career, his hometown San Francisco 49ers. So multi-talented is the man, he's known by millions of people barely aware of his gridiron exploits through his appearances in television commercials (--ing through airports to catch a rental car), as a sports broadcaster and in movies.

He has been in the public eye for near 30 years. More than a Hall of Fame ballplayer, his memorable nickname and refined style made him a cultural icon, in an exclusive league with the Muhammad Alis and the Joe DiMaggios. O.J. Simpson's persona was All-American, suave, successful, smart. And through a little box that sits in virtually all our living rooms, did we know him well, even better than the neighbor next door?

Apparently not. Whatever the meaning of the note he left behind, simply the abusive relationship that Mr. Simpson admitted to having with his ex-wife that has now become widely known, should be a reminder that we don't really know these people in the public eye. For all the private moments stolen on film by paparazzi, for all the column inches and air time devoted to celebrity journalism, news like this underscores how little we understand the private souls of these public figures.

It is also a lesson in how much we share with the cardboard cutouts that the media creates on its own or at the bidding of shrewd public relations machines: The lives of the rich and famous in no way resemble ours, but rich and poor alike are dealt the same hand of conflicting human emotions and frailties.

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