Two years after murdering his ex-wife Nicole and Ronald Goldman and eight months after being acquitted of those murders, O. J. Simpson recently made front-page news. He hosted his friend A. C. Cowlings, two former trial jurors, and various gang members and philanthropists at his Brentwood mansion to support Stop the Violence-Increase the Peace, a gang-counseling foundation that was for some inexplicable reason raising money for battered wives. A week later, it was reported that Simpson would seek custody of his two children on the grounds that the Brown family was not raising them in an " interracial environment." A week after that, a 1992 letter was released in which Simpson blasted his former sponsor Hertz for employing a "cripple" like Bo Jackson and the HIV-positive Magic Johnson.
Why on earth has O. J. been in the news in recent weeks? Does anyone really care about O.J. anymore? As it happens, yes. And passionately. "I have never seen any story with the legs that this one has," says Geraldo Rivera. "It is as compelling today as in the second half of the trial." After his nightly CNBC show began aggressively running O. J. coverage, Rivera's ratings rose by a factor of seven. He still covers the Simpson case whenever the smallest news breaks, and his two nightly airings now draw as many viewers as Larry King, once the unassailable Leviathan of cable talk television. CNN's coverage of l'affaire O. J., meanwhile, raised its own ratings fivefold. King himself has done seven Simpson shows in recent weeks. Burden of Proof, a lunch-hour daily show launched right after the trial's conclusion, is still largely about the case.
Then there are the books. Prosecutor Christopher Darden's autobiography-cum- trial-memoir, In Contempt, with 900,000 copies in print, has spent sixteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, including several in the number-one spot. Number one for the past two weeks has been Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's Outrage: Five Reasons Why O. J. Simpson Got Away with Murder, which, with 400,000 copies in print by mid-July, is Norton's fastest-selling book in seventy years. Darden's colleague Marcia Clark received a $ 4.2 million advance for her own book, due at the turn of the year from Viking. Books are also coming from Dominick Dunne, Joe McGinniss, Jeffrey Toobin, Ron Goldman's family, Johnnie Cochran, Johnnie Cochran's ex-wife, and others still.
Why this interest? If nine months after the verdict, the Simpson case remains an open wound on American public opinion, it can hardly be because of any untied strands in the plot. Vincent Bugliosi is correct to scoff at those who call the Simpson case a whodunit:
We all know what a whodunit is. That's a case where there is evidence pointing to four, five, or six suspects, and the question is, whodunit? But here, not just some of the evidence but all of the evidence pointed to one person and one person only, O. J. Simpson. Not one speck pointed to anyone else.
Nor is the interest in the case without a compass: While anti-O. J. products are selling like hotcakes, proO. J. products are taking a pounding. Infomercial Marketing Report announced that its widely ballyhooed $ 29.95 O. J.-interview videotape had grossed only $ 900,000 and sold only 30,000 copies -- fewer than many nature videos the company puts out. What's more, the books by Simpson's defense lawyers have been remarkably unsuccessful -- Alan Dershowitz's book spent a brief time on the bestseller lists, but the Robert Shapiro and Gerald Uelmen confessionals didn't sell well at all. Americans vote with their wallets, and overwhelmingly they think a horrible miscarriage of justice took place when Simpson was acquitted of the murders in October 1995.
So there's something larger than soap-opera curiosity or celebrity-worship at play in Americans' fascination with the O. J. Simpson case. And that something is race.
New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, whose book is due out in September, puts it this way: "Ten years from now, the importance of this case for race relations will be all people remember about it." A recent Learning Channel special narrated by Julian Bond predicted that the trial's big effect would be to set back racial comity for years to come. Diana Trilling speaks for many white people when she writes that the "fever of delight" among blacks she saw cheering the verdict on television "was the most disturbing feature of the trial."
The racial differences on the matter have only intensified since the verdict. Gallup polls found that whites went from feeling it was the "wrong verdict" by a margin of 49-42 just days after the trial to 53-36 two weeks later. Blacks felt it was the "right verdict" by 78-18 in the immediate aftermath and by 89-6 two weeks later. "Even educated African Americans I have known and loved for years are rooting for the home team," says Geraldo Rivera. "People who are so objective and analytical on almost any other topic, including race, seem to me irrational on this one. At every trough in my career, I could always count for support on the minority community. And for the first time ever, in twenty-six years in public life, I have received an outpouring of hostility from the community that has always been my core support." Meanwhile, the most recent poll, taken by Gallup for CNN in May, showed white opinion hardening to near-unanimity, with 79 percent considering Simpson either "definitely" or "probably" guilty.
Elite opinion is unusually in synch with mass opinion on the Simpson case. In virtually all polls, belief in Simpson's guilt rises steadily along with income level and education. And both white and black thinkers worry that the consequences of the O. J. trial could be "ominous": Whites, who now fear that the justice system is stacked against them, may be on the verge of an explosive rethinking.
The good news of the O. J. trial -- ironically, given the role "white racism" played in the jury's decision to acquit -- is that it has sparked no discernible rise in white racism. One post-verdict CBS poll asked, "Has the outcome of the O. J. Simpson trial made a difference in your feelings about Colin Powell running for president?" One can say the question is an insult to American intelligence and still be glad it was asked: This is precisely the kind of irrational political spillover one might expect with racism resurgent, and 91 percent of whites said the verdict would not affect their feelings on Powell at all. Indeed, one might argue that whites are especially bitter about the verdict because they felt their response to the case and its aftermath was honest and without bias. If you had asked people what they knew about O. J. Simpson, they would have said "football star," or "Nordberg in the Naked Gun movies," or "the Hertz car-rental guy." "Black" would have been sixth or seventh on the list, and that is rare for an African-American celebrity.
Anecdotal evidence comes when you look at attitudes towards interracial romance. The Simpson defense team, aiming to turn a black man married to a white woman into a racial symbol, stressed the perennial hostility of bigots to interracial romance. But if that hostility were universal in white America, what explains the national response to the purported romance between Marcia Clark and Chris Darden? "People liked it," says one nationally known Simpson commentator who asked not to be quoted. What's more, "they were titillated by it."
In the weeks after the verdict, Gallup did favorable/unfavorable ratings on all the participants in the trial. It is noteworthy that Mark Fuhrman, whose racism, revealed on the stand, turned the trial around, had a marginally higher unfavorable rating among whites (88 percent) than among blacks (83 percent). He also had basically identical unfavorable ratings from self- identifying conservatives (88 percent) and self-identifying liberals (87 percent). These numbers offer both a universal repudiation of Fuhrman's racism and an indication that "white racism" of the traditional variety is nearly extinct.
And yet there is no question that whites are hopping mad about something. They are mad that a murderer went free; they are mad that their anger is characterized as racism; and they are mad that a great many Americans are sympathetic to a murderer because they share skin color with him. Says Rivera, "I think that there is now a huge number of white people saying, either consciouslyor unconsciously, 'Screw them. They didn't care that O. J. Simpson got away with murder, we don't care now about the fate of these people.'" In the wake of the Simpson trial, white attitudes are perfectly clear: The vast majority of whites do not hate black people. They do hate a judicial system that allows killers to walk free, and they view the "race card" as a linchpin of that system.
In this light, it was Simpson defense counsel Johnnie Cochran who was responsible for turning the case into a milestone in the troubled history of American race relations. By asking the jury to free a murderer in order to " send a message" about racial justice, Cochran yoked the verdict to a broader civil rights agenda. In so doing, he made racial justice the enemy of plain old justice. And he led Americans to scan the broader civil rights landscape for other cases in which, in the name of justice, justice is no longer being done. The evidence may suggest to them that the cost of America's civil rights dogma has proved far dearer than they are willing to pay.
Civil-rights-style politics has been the template for every scheme to reconfigure our society over the last three decades. It is now the nation's guiding ideology and the preferred route to political power for all groups, not just ethnic or racial ones. Feminism managed to turn a majority of the population into a persecuted minority. Even Christian conservatives talk about their "minority" status, though more than 70 percent of Americans describe themselves as believing Christians. Civil-rights politics is no longer a conservative or a liberal thing: It may be the only politics we have.
Under its tenets, a painful racial insult becomes not only the moral equivalent of a physical beating, but in time a juridical equivalent as well. And the outrage once reserved for vicious crimes of violence is now expended on cruelties that do not cause blood to flow. Ask yourself which you would be more ashamed to admit to your friends: that you had just attended a dinner party at which the guest of honor was (a) O. J. Simpson or (b) Mark Fuhrman?
In a world in which the answer is always (b), the fear of being tainted by proximity to racism is overwhelming. Vincent Bugliosi views the unwillingness of prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden to rehabilitate Fuhrman -- in fact, the scarcely controlled fury with which Clark turned on her former star witness ("Do we wish there were no such people on the planet? Yes.") -- as evidence of an inversion of values. Sending a murderer to jail is no longer a primary social goal but a secondary one, well behind such abstract staples of the civil rights agenda as "respect" and "tolerance" and "dignity." Once the banner of "racial justice" was raised in the Simpson trial, everything else, including the sanctity of life, became negotiable.
Jeffrey Toobin, who was dealt the original "race card" in the fall of 1994 when the defense team leaked him the story that it would focus on Mark Fuhrman's racism, put it forthrightly right after the verdict: "Fear of being called racist transcended everything in the newsroom," he wrote in the New Yorker. "Our caution and fear, however, misled. The case against Simpson was simply overwhelming. When we said otherwise, we lied to the audience that trusted us."
"I think you can say, without exaggeration, that this Jtis our Dreyfus affair," says Geraldo Rivera, meaning that it has zigzagged along a fault line and shown the unbridgeable differences that divide the nation.
It is worth recalling that the "old order" that sent Alfred Dreyfus to Devil's Island was not that old at the time, but a product of the romantic militarism that arose from France's humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War twenty-five years earlier. Like our own civil rights movement, that surge of nationalism was necessary and healthy at first, but at some moment it grew corrupt, turned on the society it had served, and became an active menace to it.
As with the corrupt Dreyfus verdicts, the enduring interest in the O. J. verdict is due to an uncomfortable truth it revealed about our country -- how the very definition of justice has changed in the past thirty years. The jury that declared O. J. Simpson not guilty of two murders we all know he committed was acting in accordance with our national ideals, circa 1996. After all, there was nothing unexpected about the verdict; as Diana Trilling writes, "Almost everyone with whom I spoke about the case expected a hung jury; no one anticipated a conviction."
No one anticipated a conviction -- not even Nicole Brown Simpson. She told her friends, "O. J.'s going to kill me and he's going to get away with it." She opened a safe-deposit box in which she stored evidence against O. J. for an eventual murder trial. She had little doubt that the crime would occur and little faith that the law would avenge her.
Johnnie Cochran trusted that the jurors would "do the right thing," and they did. The side that used the ethnic slurs lost. The side that argued for " racial justice" -- and against justice -- won. By the country's current institutional and cultural standards, it was a just verdict.
That is the truth that obsesses the country nine months after the trial, and will obsess us for a long time to come.
By Christopher Caldwell