Michael Jackson was once so safe that presidents from both parties welcomed him to the White House. In death, after a scandal-filled decline, he is the latest target in the cultural war.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., denounced him this week in a YouTube video as a “pervert” and a “child molester.” Rush Limbaugh said Jackson “defined individuality” and “flourished” during the conservative Reagan years. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert raised the Reagan connection to attack Jackson as a symbol of impossible promises and “grotesque irresponsibility.”
Others upheld a different image. Liberal columnist John Nichols believed “the singer projected to the world the sense and the promise of a multicultural and tolerant United States.” Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., called King’s comments “scandalous and outlandish” and praised Jackson as an exemplar of “hard work, discipline, perseverance and self-determination.”
“Musical savant though he was,” columnist Patricia Williams wrote recently in the liberal magazine The Nation, “Jackson was, almost from the beginning, a tragic figure ... forever reflecting what others wanted him to be.”
Cited by the Rev. Al Sharpton at Tuesday’s memorial as helping Obama to become the first black president, Jackson himself was as cautious in his politics as he was daring in his music. He advocated self-improvement over organized action and favored uncontroversial causes such as education and anti-poverty programs. His riskiest stance may have been calling Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola a racist, in 2002, and accusing the record industry of ripping off black artists.
“He wasn’t interested in electoral politics, but he was interested in causes in the black community. He contributed to a lot of charities and was close to the Rev. (Jesse) Jackson and to Rev. Sharpton,” says poet and essayist Ishmael Reed, who wrote about Jackson in “Mixing It Up,” an essay collection.
Musicians and politicians often mixMusicians have often served as irresistible, and frustrating candidates, for political branding. Elvis Presley was a counterculture pioneer who later requested, and received, an audience with President Nixon to offer his help in the government’s war on drugs. Bob Dylan taunted his admirers by implying that he was for the Vietnam War. Louis Armstrong, accused by fellow blacks of being a grinning Uncle Tom, shocked the world when he called President Eisenhower “two-faced” on civil rights and said “the government can go to hell.”
Politicians, in turn, have a history of celebrity fascination/revulsion — from the Washington legislators who condemned Ingrid Bergman as an adulteress to Jimmy Carter quoting Dylan’s lyrics as he campaigned for president in 1976. The star-crossed syndrome was captured whole in the 1950s when, according to Arthur Miller, he was offered a loophole on being charged for contempt of Congress for refusing to name suspected Communists. All Miller had to do was agree to one legislator’s request — permit a photo with the playwright’s wife, Marilyn Monroe.
The request was denied.
Before Jackson’s 2003 arrest on child molestation charges (he was found not guilty), Republicans felt safe to stand in his company. In 1984, President Reagan invited Jackson to the White House to thank him for supporting a campaign against drunk driving. “He is totally opposed to Drugs & Alcohol & is using his popularity to influence young people against them,” Reagan wrote in his diary at the time.
The first President Bush also complimented Jackson, appearing with him in the Rose Garden in 1990 and noting that Jackson had received a humanitarian award from the Capital Children’s Museum. “He does good work, what we call the ‘Points of Light’ concept,” said Bush, referring to his national volunteer program. “Glad you’re here, sir. Very pleased you’re here.”
Jackson sang “Heal the World” at President Clinton’s first inaugural gala, in 1993. Nine years later, even after allegations had emerged of inappropriate behavior with children (child sexual abuse charges had been settled out of court in 1994), Jackson appeared at a New York fundraising concert for the Democratic National Committee.
Affection remains among leading Democrats. Clinton recalled Tuesday that the singer had saved the party from “terrible financial distress.” President Obama mentioned his “sad personal life,” but emphasized “the great joy that he brought to a lot of people through his extraordinary gifts as an entertainer.”
“He was a universal African-American, probably the first post-race superstar,” Reed said. “It’s weird to see people attack him now because in some ways he reminds you of Obama — looking for compromise between different groups, for ways we could all get along.”