Monday, June 29, 2009

Michael Jackson, Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, and David Gregory

David Gregory asked Senior White House Advisor David Axelrod a question near the end of their interview on Meet the Press yesterday that bothered me for two reasons. Why, Gregory asked Axelrod, did President Obama not say anything publicly about the death of Michael Jackson, given that "some African-American leaders say the significance of this popular cultural icon was significant. I mean, before there was Barack Obama, before Tiger Woods and Oprah Winfrey there was Michael Jackson crossing over, breaking barriers."

First, I'm wondering why Gregory chose to attribute this astute obervation to "some African-American leaders," when it was first said by the Rev. Al Sharpton, in a powerful, impromptu statement in front of the Apollo Theater on Thursday, shortly after Jackson's death had been announced. "Way before Tiger Woods, way before Oprah Winfrey, way before Barack Obama, Michael did with music what they later did in sports and in politics and in television," Sharpton said to the crowd in front of him and watching on television.

At best, Gregory's attribution of the statement was needlessly vague. At worst, it verges on plagiarism, implying, with the "I mean," that Gregory came up with the specific names in the analysis. I don't like this kind of fuzzy attribution in student papers or on national news shows. Gregory should have clearly identified the statement as by its author, Al Sharpton.

But, more important, why indeed did Barack Obama not publicly and directly say something to the nation and the world about the impact of Michael Jackson? Axelrod's answer - that Obama had "written the family and has shared his feelings with the family" privately - did not really address Gregory's question. There is a world of difference between condolences privately given and a statement to the world about one of the people primarily responsible for "We Are the World," and so many other towering things in our popular culture.

Few things happen by accident in any White House, least of all this one. Obama and his advisors clearly thought it not appropriate for the President to comment publicly about Michael Jackson.

Why not?

I suspect this is another expression of the odd Puritanical streak we sometimes glimpse in Obama, related to his attack on television in favor of books for children, and perhaps his refusal to support gay marriage. Michael Jackson was no doubt a complex and controversial figure, accused of a serious crime. But he was acquitted, no further civil actions were brought against him, and this was not a time to cold shoulder his extraordinary accomplishments.

A President of the United States is a Chief Executive of many things. One of them is talking to the world about events in America of such significant cultural importance that they dominate world news for days. Obama loses points for not stepping up to this job and saying the right thing about Michael Jackson.
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