Because my daughter said I should, I decided to watch that ten part series on the O.J. Simpson trial. She had no memory of the O.J. story and, for that matter, mine was fairly sketchy. She’d been too young to understand or care when the original played on television … non-stop, it sometimes seemed. Back then, her idea of television was Sesame Street, I suppose. Meanwhile, I was busy; traveling frequently and finding myself in places where I was cut off from the ubiquitous media coverage. Even when I had time and television access, the prospect of following one of those panel discussions on cable television seemed about as inviting as a trip to the dentist.
Maybe I could have made the effort but I didn’t really care. He was plainly guilty. The trial was just a stall.
So this time around, I kept putting off watching the show and didn’t get around to it until the week before the primary in Indiana when Donald Trump sewed up the Republican presidential nomination. Which was, in some ways, a revelation.
To spare the reader any excruciating suspense, O.J. gets off. But he is still guilty. The considerable achievement of the television series is that it gives the viewer a sense of how this could be.
The expert lawyering certainly had something to do with it. Also the seething state of race relations in Los Angeles, two years after the Rodney King riots. And, then, there was the matter of time and its slow, inexorable passage.
The trial lasted almost nine months. The passage of that much time allowed people to come around to a kind of paradoxical conclusion. Namely, that Simpson was the killer and, also, that the proper verdict was… not guilty.
Nine months is a long time. Long enough to go from conception to delivery of a baby. Long enough for the mind to work some strange magic. This may be an evolutionary survival strategy which people deploy, in these strange times, to keep from going insane.
Consider a couple of other examples.
When the news first broke about a possible sexual relationship between the President of the United States and a White House intern, a lot of very savvy and experienced people (those “old Washington hands” we are always hearing about) came to a quick conclusion. Clinton was done. Finished. Burnt toast.
Clinton denied any such relationship and thus began a long, sordid saga the details of which are best passed over. Life is too short to relive that scandal again, though one supposes we probably will now that Hillary Clinton will be running as the Democratic Party’s candidate for President. She, of course, won’t bring it up but her opponent almost certainly will.
More on him in a moment. For now, back to the first days of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal:
In those early hours, the question, in most minds, was guilt or innocence. If the rumors about the relationship were true… well, Clinton almost certainly would not survive.
But, of course, the rumors did turn out to be true and Clinton did survive. And, in fact, he survived something much worse than the scandal of hitting on a vulnerable young woman. He survived lying about it. He was guilty of perjury but that was not enough to force him out of office by resignation or impeachment. If the people who discussed those original charges on the Sunday morning programs in the week they first surfaced had been asked if Clinton could survive all that… well, they almost certainly would have said, “Impossible.”
However, the scandal dragged on for more than a year. Enough time for people to get their minds around something that would have been incomprehensible when the thing was beginning. Presented with the hypothetical of the President seducing interns in the Oval Office and then committing perjury about it, most people would have predicted that the President could not possibly survive in office.
But the mind limbered up with the passage of time and learned to warp itself around the concept of a Philanderer-and-Perjurer-in-Chief.
And, soon we were told it was “time to move on.”
It has been not quite a year since Donald Trump announced he would be campaigning for the Republican nomination for President. Before that announcement, there were rumors of his intentions. A lot of people with a lot of experience and wisdom about American politics said, in effect, “no way.”
Hard, after all, to get the mind around the notion of “Trump for President.”
Harder, still to get the mind around, “Donald Trump, Republican nominee for President.”
Impossible to get it around the idea of “President Trump.”
Nate Silver, the Lord of Data, wrote that his “… emphatic prediction is simply that Trump will not win the nomination. It’s not even clear that he’s trying to do so.”
James Fallows wrote in the Atlantic that, “The chance of his winning [the] nomination and election is exactly zero.”
There were more. Many more.
During the campaign, when Donald Trump uttered something ugly or heretically un-PC (which was frequently) the predictions of his doom would quickly follow and 24 hours later… Trump would still be there. Ready to move on to the next outrage.
As time went on, the outrages did not stop. And, in fact, may have become more outrageous. Senator Cruz’s father meeting with Lee Harvey Oswald? Certainly worth considering seriously, Trump says, because the National Enquirer reported it.
Twenty-four hours later, he sews up the nomination in Indiana. People were no longer surprised or shocked. Now they were talking about who he would pick as his running mate.
Two days earlier, I had watched the last episode of the O.J. series. The one where the jury comes back with a quick verdict of “not guilty.” Which, as the show makes plain, was widely considered both wrong and, somehow, inevitable and, by its inevitability, also right.
O.J. is the killer and he is also not guilty. There has been some rough justice. O.J. is now in prison. He convicted not of killing his ex-wife and a friend of hers but of robbery, kidnapping, and weapons charges after he and some associates tried to recover some of his “memorabilia,” by violence.
It was Thomas Hardy sort of justice and the mind, annealed by time, is okay with that. Just as it is with the idea of the adulterer and perjurer in chief. Bill Clinton beat the rap in the sense that he survived impeachment but in the coming Presidential campaign, it appears that his wife will pay the price for his sins. Donald Trump will gleefully bring up Bill Clinton’s bad behavior, past and present. And for the Clintons, it will feel like the days of Monica and the blue dress all over again.
Watching the television re-creation of the O.J. saga, one cringed at the various depictions of what we all went through. The people cheering Simpson on during the “slow speed chase” on the L.A. freeways. “Go O.J.,” they shouted from the overpasses and the shoulders of the highways. And, then, there was the obsessive coverage that created, among others, the Kardashians. The thing became a cheap celebrity melodrama with all sorts of subplots that people followed at home on the television the same way they did the afternoon soaps. And at night, the cable shows served up legal expert analysis, legal and other wise. Then, when it ended, there were parties at O.J.’s house. But people dropped him. The jury may have come back with “not guilty,” but was still the killer. Simpson even put his name on a book with the title, If I Did It. The mind wrapped itself around that and, then, we moved on. Feeling, I think, a little soiled by the whole thing.
And now, one wonders, how much time will it take before the mind can adapt itself to the notion of “President Trump”? And, if he loses, will we look back and regard the whole thing the way we no do the O.J. trial and the Clinton impeachment? Will we remember how he got a pass on the John McCain slur and so many other things and when we remember, will we experience a flush of shame?
Scott Fitzgerald famously observed that, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Maybe the intelligence doesn’t necessarily have to be “first-rate” to accomplish this. It simply has to be be ground down by the force of time.
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