My mother, like almost every other mother alive today, still remembers exactly where she was when she heard. She was in her tenth grade math class on Nov. 22, 1963 when a voice over the loud-speaker announced that President John F. Kennedy '40 had been assassinated. Her teacher, who at the beginning of the term had joked that the class would be spared homework "only if the President were shot," assigned homework nonetheless.
This story has become the stuff of lore in my family, and I suspect that each family has its own perennially recounted version of the same experience. The assassination of President Kennedy is the hallmark of a generation. Our parents have passed it down to us and it is, at least in part, how we know them and the times in which they lived.
I also remember exactly where I was when I heard--and so, I imagine, do all of you. It was Oct. 2, 1995 and I was in a taxi with a classmate on the way to Logan Airport to fly home for Yom Kippur. As we were chatting in the back-seat, we all of a sudden heard a newscaster's voice emerging out of the static fuzz of the cab driver's radio: "Once again ladies and gentlemen, the verdict in the O.J. Simpson case--not guilty."
The comparison between the Kennedy assassination and the Simpson verdict as "defining" moments for their respective generations has become cliched, but that, I fear, is because there is much truth in it. Two and a half years ago, when I first heard the news that O.J. Simpson was suspected in the murders of his wife and her friend, I could never have imagined that the Simpson case would become the pivotal cultural event of my young adult-hood. But so it did.
The Simpson case had a remarkable ability to represent the evils of contemporary American life. Not long into the three ring circus of a trial that the media gleefully beamed into our homes, it became clear that the cheap, silly sensationalism of American pop culture had at last infiltrated American jurisprudence. An America that had been "Sally Jessed" and "Geraldoed" adnauseam only needed a nudge from a football player-turned-B-movie-actor-turned-B-murderer to go completely nuts. Every pathetic character in the long and sundry march toward the first verdict was vaulted into international fame. The ridiculous "surfer dude," the racist cop, the narcissistic judge, the scuzzy defense lawyers and the mutually enamored prosecutors--it was almost too much.
Then it was too much. It took the media longer than expected to convince the nation that the O.J. Simpson trial was the newest racial battleground in America, but convince us they did. As if it were divine revelation, America unquestioningly accepted this ridiculous conceit to such an extent that it finally became true. After so many months of endless, shameless efforts at story-genesis by a media that needed more to report at the end of a day's testimony in the world's most boring soap opera than "a police detective testified about police detective work," America was sold on the story. All of a sudden this caricature of a murderer with his full repertoire of cheesy courtroom faces had become some kind of martyr to the virulent bigotry of American justice. Was there really no one else around who could fit that bill?
The cheering auditorium at Howard University Law School that was contrasted with the ashen faces on white main street on the news that night was indeed evidence of something powerful. It did not demonstrate, as is commonly supposed, how the racial divide in the country was the defining factor in the O.J. Simpson trial. Rather, it was an indication that the "race card," as it was so ubiquitously called, had been played, not just with the jury, but with the whole country. By the end of it all, black America had found a most unlikely hero, and white America a most ridiculous enemy.
Hearing the verdict in the civil trial earlier this week, our thoughts inevitably returned to the criminal trial, and we were driven to reflect on the O.J. saga in its entirety. For myself, I can't help wondering why America was split asunder rather than united in disgust when this man murdered two innocent human beings. At least we may be grateful that the whole sad business of the O.J. Simpson case is over: Reqiescat in pace.
Eric M. Nelson's column appears on alternate Saturdays.