O.J.: A Metaphor For America

O.J.: A Metaphor For Ameirca


Leonard Zwelling




I’ve included The New York Times obituary and comments from Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal (4/13) and Wesley Morris in The New York Times (4/13) following the death of O.J. Simpson. All three are worth reading.

It all comes down to this. O.J. Simpson’s was a unique American story that exploded co-temporally with the advent of the wide use of the Internet and it was all seen on live television.

I want to take his story an extra step. O.J.‘s story did not just reflect America and his times. O.J.’s story is a metaphor for America during the course of an extraordinary life. He came to our attention at the end of the turbulent 1960’s and ran through the NFL thereafter. He became the one Black man who was able to transcend race in a divided nation and though he was accepted by the white establishment in its commercials and entertainment, we never stopped being a symbol of Black pride—until…

There is little doubt in the mind of any rational American alive in 1995 that O.J. Simpson killed his wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman. The evidence was overwhelming, but the prosecution inept. The defense “Dream Team” turned the whole trial into a referendum on the racism of the Los Angeles Police Department and managed to convince twelve jurors that O.J. was not guilty even as he was subsequently convicted of responsibility in a civil suit only to sink even lower by being convicted of armed robbery and serving hard time. In the end, he died of prostate cancer at age 76.

For me O.J. remains a metaphor for America during my lifetime. The 1960’s were turbulent but a time of promise. O.J. shone. The 1970’s less so, but salvaged by the sunniness of Ronald Reagan and the post-Vietnam American triumph over the Soviet Union. And O.J. ran through airports, by-passed the Hertz counter and starred in movies like Capricorn One. His star rose. Our star rose. As his career developed, so did mine. I was just at the beginning of my administrative career when the verdict came down and we watched it all on the television in The Office of the Vice President for Patient Care, David Hohn.

But first came the low-speed Bronco chase down the highways of LA that interrupted a Houston Rockets playoff game as we were watching on our small kitchen television. While the country seemed to be overcoming its racial prejudices under Bill Clinton, the truth would come out soon enough. We were still divided along racial lines as the verdict in the O.J. trial displayed. Whites were in disbelief. Blacks were jubilant. Was justice served? Did anyone still care about justice?

Regardless, it was still the downfall of an American hero. As we spiraled through 9/11, Iraq, and George W. Bush, O.J. spiraled, too. When Barack Obama ushered in the post-racism era as a new Black American hero, O.J.’s star faded. Now, with the advent of Trump, so has Obama’s. So has our country’s.

I am not a doom and gloom guy because I really believe America will come to its senses once it can get past Covid and Biden or Trump. Whichever, O.J. never got past the Trial of the Century.

Let’s hope the finality of O.J.’s latter days do not portend for those of the United States.

There was never a brighter star than O.J. Then, like a supernova he was gone. We cannot allow the O.J. Simpson story to be a complete metaphor for the United States. Maybe, just for the last century. Maybe.

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