A real thriller: Mr. Jackson goes to Washington

April 07, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Yes, that really was Michael Jackson and not an early April Fool's Day joke standing with members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Capitol Hill last week.

Sure, it was odd. But when members of Congress stand with the "King of Pop," I guess it is hard to tell which side is taking the bigger risk to its reputation.

Mr. Jackson came to Capitol Hill last week while a secret grand jury back in Santa Barbara, Calif., heard evidence of child molestation charges against him. He called the charges "a big lie." I have heard members of Congress say that when they were nailed by charges of wrongdoing. Sometimes they were right. With that in mind, it is only fair that we should presume Mr. Jackson's innocence until he is proved to be otherwise.

Nevertheless, timing matters. Honoring Mr. Jackson while clouds of suspicion hover over his head is about as ill-timed in my view as the NAACP's recent nomination of singing star R. Kelly for one of its coveted Image Awards.

That nomination came while Mr. Kelly was under investigation in two states for various child pornography charges. Sure, he too is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proved guilty. The Florida charges and some of the Illinois charges already have been dropped.

Nevertheless, as concerned as I am about promoting good role models for our youths, I questioned whether R. Kelly's image was the sort of image that the NAACP wants to promote while charges are still pending against him.

Fortunately, NAACP head Kweisi Mfume agrees. Even before the final awards were announced, with Luther Vandross beating out Mr. Kelly for the "best album" honors, Mr. Mfume said a new morals clause would be included in future awards rules. Good move.

But now here come black congressmen standing with Mr. Jackson, resplendent in red-sequined jacket and facing a gaggle of reporters in the Rayburn House Office Building.

In town to be honored by diplomatic spouses for his help in the fight against AIDS in Africa, he also met with Reps. Chaka Fattah and Sheila Jackson-Lee and just about every other member of Congress who did not run and hide.

Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., the Chicago Democrat who is no relation to the pop star, helped me to understand why CBC members turned out so mightily for a man whose presence appeared to cause many other House members to dart behind closed doors.

"We never would have gotten this many reporters to come if Michael Jackson weren't here," he said.

He had that right. And that's a sad story in itself. Some 30 million people are reported to have the AIDS virus in Africa, but that catastrophe does not have the media drawing power of a pop superstar.

So, if Mr. Jackson is using the caucus to polish his image, the caucus is using him, too, in order to draw attention to a broken promise by President Bush. Remember his 2003 State of the Union address? He grandly promised $15 billion to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean over the next five years.

But after the applause died down, Mr. Bush proposed to wait a year and begin the "emergency" funding with small amounts that would be increased later. Instead of $3 billion a year in each of the five years, he proposed starting with much less and gradually working up to the full amount.

As a result, after more than a year, only about $350 million has been committed while another 2.5 million Africans with AIDS have died, according to the World Health Organization.

As one U.N. official said, it is hard to imagine that the United States would pay as little attention if those victims were white instead of black. Indeed it is.

With that in mind, I begin to understand why some black caucus members are so desperate for attention to the AIDS crisis that they cluster around a "King of Pop" who has seen better days. It's not easy for a caucus of minorities in a minority party to get attention, let alone respect, on Capitol Hill these days. When nothing else works, as they say in show biz, you go over the top. For all of his weirdness, Michael Jackson is an expert at getting attention, just as President Bush can be pretty adept at avoiding it.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column usually appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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