Jeffrey Toobin wasn't having any of it.
The legal experts, Toobin included, had been telling us for weeks that the parole of O.J. Simpson following his incarceration for a robbery was a "slam dunk" but even so, the only things missing when the announcement came were actual steam coming out of Toobin's ears and venom stains burning holes in his tie.
After the parole was announced Thursday on CNN by a Nevada parole board and after CNN broadcast the entire hearing, Toobin said this to the camera:
"After all these years, I thought I had lost the ability to be appalled, to be nauseated, to be outraged by the behavior of O.J. Simpson. But I thought his statements were self-pitying, self-justifying, showing no sense of remorse, no sense of reality for his own life.
"He claimed he led a conflict-free life. Put aside the murders – which I think he committed but was acquitted of. How about the fact that he repeatedly beat hell out of Nicole Brown Simpson and she called 911 all the time on him? He is a convicted and confessed domestic abuser."
The problem, Toobin said a few minutes later, was that "so many people in our society don't think domestic violence is a crime."
That, I said to myself, is how to be a talking head on cable television.
I made a point of reviewing for this newspaper all the major books of what could be called "the O.J. book shelf." There's no question which ones were the two best by far: Toobin's "The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson," which was later turned into the FX network's historic and Emmy-sweeping mini-series, and Sheila Weller's early, semi-exploitative "Raging Heart: The Ultimate Story of the Tragic Marriage of O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson." To this day, I think, the latter is the finest outlay between covers of the case against Simpson.
Weller was writing about the harrowing and brutal marriage and the crime, not the trial. She wrote this plea on Facebook, after the parole hearing announcement: "Please TV executives, do not give him a reality show, or ANY show."
Lest anyone think her plea was ludicrous and unnecessary in an orderly and tasteful contemporary America, consider this: If the parole hearing proved anything, it's that no single subject on the American popular agenda of the last 25 years has come close to occupying as much space as the Simpson trial. And so vast is the current American empire of the internet and the media – and so abysmal are some of its products – that Weller's fears weren't absurd in the slightest.
Everyone knew that the crime he had been convicted for in Nevada was really getting away with murder in California in the mid-'90s. All that gun-toting and noise-making by his goons in a hotel room merely provided a pretext for America to do what it couldn't before. The time to get real was at hand.
The only competition for our Simpson obsession in America in the past quarter century would be Bill Clinton's zipper follies and subsequent impeachment and the mind-boggling hurricane of chaos, scorn and incivility surrounding the current president. And neither of those two came within shouting distance of the Simpson's case's ability to call just about every assumption of modern American life into question. They all seemed to conspire in the near-beheading of Nicole Brown Simpson and the massacre of Ronald Goldman: racial injustice, fame, sports, the nexus of iron between money and American media.
The ability of our current president to dynamite at least half of what America takes for granted is undeniable. It just hasn't happened yet.
The Simpson case – murder, trial and aftermath – happened. We've never been the same. Michael Socolow wrote in the Hollywood Reporter that O.J. and Al Cowlings' White Bronco Ride "changed America forever." Cable news came of age. Why? As "The Hollywood Reporter" noted, "the O.J. Simpson Trial proved that very cheap programming can deliver unprecedented returns, so the television industry – both cable and broadcast – desperately kept searching for the next gold mine."
The O.J. parole hearing wasn't it. But it sure did vibrate with memories of the case when it was. Anyone who watched it on any other network than CNN was making a ridiculous mistake. And I don't care how proud Fox News was of asking Mark Fuhrman to comment on it. Toobin's was the only reaction to the event that mattered.
Lest anyone think of Toobin exclusively as an author of books and articles in "The New Yorker," it's crucial to remember that he grew up in the very bosom of American television. Toobin's father Jerome was a TV news producer and his mother, Marlene Sanders, was a historic figure in American television news: the first female solo anchor of an evening news broadcast at ABC along with a large barrel of other firsts.
What Toobin is now is a conspicuously unembarrassed survivor of a great era of American media – i.e., the '70s – when media criticism itself became one of the most important products of all American media. What was happening after the seismic events of the '60s is that "telling it like it is" became the obsession of every serious journalist in America – even the ones such as Howard Cosell, who could waggle his cigar and turn it into a slogan that somehow sounded fake.
It was when America, at large, first became conscious of exactly how much B.S. American media were flinging at us. We didn't have a name for it like "fake news," but everyone knew about it and some of us were writing about it as often as we dared. Hence, "Saturday Night Live" had a weekly subject – and its later most influential disciple, Jon Stewart.
Fake news is the world where O.J. Simpson may actually convince people that conflict was never a major feature of his personal life.
Telling it like it is, though, is what Toobin did – along with making sure that we noticed that a member of the Nevada Parole Board wore a Kansas City Chiefs tie.
"The Battle Hymn of the Republic" just may be right – maybe the truth really is marching on.