Sunday, October 05, 2008

O.J. Simpson and President Clinton

O. J. Simpson was found guilty of armed robbery and kidnapping two days ago. I imagine most of us are not shocked. Back in 1995, I thought Simpson may have been innocent of the murder charges he was acquitted of back then. However, when he wrote If I Did It, I realized he had been guilty and had gotten away with murder.

The 'Trial of the Century" attracted high level scrutiny. His mid-1990s murder trial got the attention of President Clinton. Clinton had played golf with Simpson shortly before the murders. George Stephanopoulos at Newsweek (March 15, 1999) ( and wrote:

In the fall of '95, however, the American public was preoccupied with a drama far from Washington. In the White House, we calculated what the O. J. Simpson verdict would mean for Clinton and the country--and got ready for the worst.

On Monday, Oct. 2, Gene Sperling and I were in my office when CNN's "Breaking News" logo lit up the television that was always on. Caught off guard by the fact that the jury's deliberations had taken less than four hours, chief of staff Leon Panetta hastily called a meeting in his office. The president would need a statement responding to the verdict, which would come the next day, and the Justice Department was preparing for possible riots in Los Angeles.

Naturally, we began speculating on the verdict. Leon, a former prosecutor and strict disciplinarian, went straight to guilty. Dick Morris went straight to the polls: "Eighty percent of the blacks in the country think O.J.'s been framed or that there was police misconduct. He's innocent." My own conclusion was more a wish than a prediction. "Guilty," I said. The president refused to play, saying only that he was surprised at how quickly the verdict had been reached. Morris had an answer for that too: "That kind of impetuousness is characteristic of blacks."

The next morning, we met with Justice Department officials to review their contingency plans. Their Community Services Task Force reported that African-Americans in Los Angeles were on tenterhooks and focused on Mark Fuhrman. They feared a guilty verdict would set off riots in the streets, and were coordinating with the LAPD and community leaders to keep the situation under control. Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick told us that once the verdict was announced, the Justice Department would pursue a civil-rights complaint against Mark Fuhrman and investigate allegations of misconduct against the police--a move that would be especially crucial if O.J. was found guilty. We all agreed that the president's statement should be as neutral as possible.

When we went to get the president's approval, he opened the meeting with a wan stab at humor: "So, Jamie, are we going to have black or white riots today?" I flashed back to a moment shortly after Simpson's arrest. Clinton was in his dining room, recalling the time he'd played golf with O.J. and reflecting on the anxieties that eat away at a middle-aged man whose greatest achievements are behind him. But now the president was more focused on politics than psychology. The prospect of acquittal made Clinton anxious. He feared it would fuel white resentment and feed the prejudiced notion that "blacks can't be trusted with the criminal-justice system." An acquittal would deepen racial divisions; and while Clinton didn't say it then, he knew it could also mean more "angry white males" voting Republican in 1996.

The Washington Post noted:

Clinton thought O.J. Simpson was guilty and worried that his October 1995 acquittal would enflame the "angry-white-male" vote. When the verdict came down, "he struggled to remain silent, but a single disgusted syllable slipped out: 'S -- -.' "

I have to believe that the current O.J. Simpson trial and conviction resulted in no high level talks in the Bush Administration. This trial was a lot more low key. And further, few have sympathy for Simpson anymore. He probably deserves his fate. However, as he has money, he may be able to appeal his way out of this charge too. (Money talks which is the likely reason Simpson walked back in 1995). I guess he could be the biggest victim of the criminal justice system in history but I doubt it.


Jennie W said...
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Jennie W said...

I definitely remember the O.J. trial (we watched the verdit being handed down in TV in school), although I must admit I don't remember anything about Clinton with it. I always personally thought he was guilty and was just able to lawyer/money his way out.