I missed most of the original hoopla in the O.J. Simpson story because I happened to be spending the weekend in a televisionfree zone, as a house-guest in the Connecticut countryside. We all thought, before we secluded ourselves, that O.J. had probably done it; the widely publicised bloodstained ski mask (which has since mutated, as a piece of evidence, into the far less memorable knitted cap) seemed to seal his fate. But we remained ignorant of the escape, the threat to kill himself, the television highway chase, the eventual surrender and arrest, until one of my hosts, venturing out for some groceries, returned with the news. He had heard it on the car radio and then bought the paper to find out more.
‘O.J. must be the most famous person ever arrested for murder’ was the opening gambit in our lunchtime conversation. We were all eager to join in, but quickly discovered it was necessary to lay some ground rules. Committing a murder couldn’t be the reason for the person’s fame – which eliminated such likely winners as Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy. Nor could murder be seen as part of the famous person’s regular activities, his professional equipment, as it were. This let out people like Genghis Khan and Hitler – who were, in any case, only ‘arrested’ in the sense of being stopped. I proposed Louis Althusser, but was condescendingly told that an academic political theorist who strangled his wife hardly counted as famous in the terms we were using. (The first response of my tablemates was: ‘Who?’) ‘How about Fatty Arbuckle?’ someone said, but someone else felt that the charge against the Twenties movie star had been rape rather than murder, or possibly that no formal charge had been brought at all. In the end, we were forced to agree that O.J. Simpson was history’s most famous murder suspect.
This is partly because in the last few decades fame has reached different proportions. Football, television commercials and movies – all linked directly to the fame industry – have made O.J. Simpson a household name worldwide. People know not just his name, but his face and his voice. He is familiar to us in a way that more serious celebrities – heads of state, Nobel Peace Prize winners, novelists – are not. And this familiarity lends an added thrill, if also added distress, to his downfall. The thrill is, of course, linked to the distress: there can be no roller-coaster ride of the emotions without some corresponding feeling of loss. Our communal scapegoats must matter to us, if the displacement is to work.
Andy Warhol once famously promised that everyone would get his fifteen minutes of fame. But this promise is also a threat, because in a country as obsessed with media reporting as America, you’re only going to get fifteen minutes: after that, people will be so sick of hearing about you that they’ll blank your name out. The O.J. story went from fascinating to old-hat in about a week. I began by saying that I missed the original hoopla, but this is not to say that I missed a single minute of the coverage of the escape, because we were to see that videotape – the white car tootling down the highway, the press helicopters covering it from above – over and over again during the subsequent week. Not that watching it after the fact is the same as watching it when the outcome is still unresolved. It’s rather like watching a taped football game when the newspapers have already reported the results. But then, new football games come on all the time whereas there was only one O.J. escape.