Key issues go by the board when Simpson case is on

July 15, 1994|By Sandy Grady

Washington -- IT IS terrible, yes, simply dreadful, that Americans are ignoring the Really Important Issues in their hell-bent obsession with the O.J. Simpson case.

You hear that complaint often in Washington, the Imperial City that preens itself as the heart of the universe. After all, when presidents pontificate or senators harrumph, they rule the network news. As if by divine right, television is their private playpen.

Yet, these Masters of the Tube have been nuked into oblivion by the Simpson melodrama. I guarantee you no politician in America was so intently monitored last week as O.J.'s attorney Robert Shapiro or prosecutor Marcia Clark.

Who cares about Leon Panetta or Bob Dole or President What's-His-Name?

Shocking -- the Imperial City's pols and players blown out of the limelight by a sordid little L.A. murder case.

"What about the crime bill? Or campaign finance reform? Or health-care reform? Aren't they more important than what happens to a football player?" sniffed a Senate aide.

You hear similar beefs from White House staffers, irked that Mr. Clinton's choreographed European summit was wiped off TV by the O.J. hearing. "The O.J. thing has jammed the air," said one Clinton honcho. "Nobody's listening to our message on health reform."

You hear pitiful bleats from Congressfolk who gripe that the country's too fascinated with bloody gloves to care about their all-important midterm campaigns.

"If we could get the same attention to health-care reform, we'd really have democracy on our hands," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Times-Mirror Center for the People and the Press. Sorry, folks want their gore. And I don't mean Al. Forget health care. The O.J. drama is as big as George Bush's last war. Yep, CNN says its O.J. viewership, hitting 12 million homes at Friday's climax, rivaled the Persian Gulf War ratings. Even bombs landing on Baghdad didn't cause CBS, NBC, and ABC to knock out their soap operas fivehours a day.

Even if Bill Clinton sang a duet with Paula Jones, no presidential press conference could equal the O.J. ratings. But Washington wonks are sulking. A typical protest was registered by Mona Charen, CNN commentator and Washington Times columnist, who wrote, "When networks carry the preliminary hearing live, it signals the event is more important to the nation than anything else. Wall-to-wall coverage is usually reserved for great national events like elections, inaugurations or natural disasters."

She doesn't "hold it against people that they are interested." (Thanks, Mona.) But she argues, "Obsession with it is not seemly. It draws upon our prurience, tugging at our elbows to look at the knife, consider the blood-stained paws of the dog, think about the gruesome corpses."

You betcha, Ms. Charen. The Simpson case is exactly that -- a "great national event." Like a hurricane or quadrennial election, it bonds people together.

Everyone in a barber shop, mall or cafe spouts an opinion. Sure, it won't solve the health or Haiti messes. But it fires the national psyche with a primitive mystery no TV network or newspaper can overplay. Most Washington conflicts consist of a dozen middle-aged men in gray suits bickering on C-SPAN until they run out of cliches and go on recess.

But unlike Washington's mini-dramas, the O.J. case (1) is unpredictable, its twists uncontrolled by corporate lobbyists or political bosses; (2) will eventually have a conclusion, and (3) is ignited by eternal fires of sex, murder and race.

Rarely in politics do we encounter archetypal drama like O.J.'s fall -- a beloved multi-million-dollar athlete grimacing in a courtroom as a coroner traces knife wounds in his ex-wife's throat.

But if this is unimportant, trivial, declasse, so are classic Greek tragedies and much of Shakespeare. (How long before PBS rediscovers "Othello," a shadow drama of a black man who kills his white wife in a jealous rage?) And yes, it's sad many Americans see the O.J. case through the prism of race -- 68 percent of whites judging him guilty, 24 percent of blacks disagreeing. That too is illuminating.

And sure, it's a blight that supermarket tabloids and sleaze TV shows run wild, buying witnesses' tales and pumping the bloodiest angles. (Nastiest tab headline: "OJ'S DAD WAS DRAG QUEEN WHO DIED OF AIDS.")

And yes, we've had a surfeit of lawyers playing TV talking heads. If there's one criminal lawyer in America who hasn't been on "Nightline," he should sue.

Suddenly the guy sucking up celebrity air time isn't Mr. Clinton, Mr. Dole or Sen. George Mitchell. He's O.J.'s mouthpiece Mr. Shapiro, signing autographs for cheering mobs and smiling bronze-chested by his pool in People.

But no one need apologize for our O.J. obsession. We're caught in an irresistible, primeval dream -- could we be victim, or falsely accused, or even murderer? The O.J. Orgy is a shot of humility for Washington. Poor Imperial City, its pomp ignored. Wonks, eat your hearts out.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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