THE SELLING OF O.J.

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Last week a sometime journalist and well-wired wheeler-dealer named Larry Schiller went to the editors of Playboy magazine offering them an exclusive interview with O.J. Simpson for a half million bucks.

Years ago Schiller was similarly the go-between for a story with convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, which eventually became Norman Mailer's great book, "The Executioner's Song." So Schiller was a man Playboy would take seriously. And the magazine's previous professional relationship with Simpson (an exercise video produced before the murders and then subsequently not released) had been a cordial one. "We wanted a former athlete and of all those we tested, O.J.'s television Q rating was by far the highest."

But last week, as Simpson played the media like a cheap harmonica, tunelessly but out loud, Playboy wasn't having any.

"We just said `no,"' a source told me last Thursday morning.

On his syndicated morning drive radio show Don Imus also had it right. "There isn't enough money in the world to get me to do that interview. Unless he were hooked up to a lie detector, under oath, and subject to the penalties of perjury. And we know that isn't going to happen."

Yet last Wednesday Simpson had apparently gotten himself an hour of prime time over NBC and not only that, was forcing the other networks (except for ABC, locked into baseball playoffs) to reconfigure their schedules because, presumably, all America would be tuned in to the self-justifications of a wife-beater and, many people believe, a double-murderer. He had TV scrambling to cancel everything but "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and "The Robin Byrd Show."

Some, of course, would be watching to see Simpson hang himself. "He isn't that smart, you know," a Wall Street lawyer told me, "and his body language alone is going to tell a lot."

Besides that, Katie Couric, a little tiger gnawing at bones when she's on her form, and Tom Brokaw wouldn't be limited by the rules of evidence required in a courtroom. Those photos of a battered Nicole tucked away by her in a safe deposit box along with her note to the effect, "He's going to kill me one day," while barred by Judge Ito, would be fair game during the live interview by NBC. So would elements of the famous white Bronco chase. And so on.

His lawyers, somewhat belatedly, came to their senses and shot down that interview, which then gave Simpson the opportunity to spend an hour or so telephoning The New York Times and declaring his innocence.

Has he no shame?

A few months before he died I interviewed radical attorney William Kunstler on Roger Ailes' talk show (Roger was on vacation) over America's Talking cable outlet. Most of the chat was about Oklahoma City and the Chicago Seven and Jack Ruby and the like. But when I asked if he were following the O.J. trial and what he thought, Bill Kunstler was dismissive. In words to this effect he said, on the air, "It's a routine spousal abusive case that boiled over into a killing and except for the celebrity of the defendant, would have been tried and a verdict brought in a week or 10 days."

And this was Kunstler, the attorney for the damned, the champion of bombthrowers and underdogs, dismissing the O.J. case as open & shut. Instead of a week we had a year of "the dancing Itos" and other tasteless japes and capers.

Today in Washington the Rev. Farrakhan is staging his "million man march," from which black women, all whites, and others are excluded. While it is unlikely he will get anything like a million people out, Rev. Farrakhan has succeeded in demagoguing considerable media interest, urging people not to go to work or to attend school. Which strikes me as a curious way in which to enhance African-American pride and achievement (in New York at least one school may be shut because so many teachers are taking the day off). As might be expected, O.J. has been invited to march along.

Need a role model, kids? Meet "The Juice."

Quickie public opinion surveys taken in the wake of that microwave-velocity verdict brought us the astonishing response that at least some black Americans believe it is better for a guilty black to beat the system than for a just verdict to be reached in a "white" court. This was in addition to the many African-Americans who really believed the LAPD was engaged in a gigantic conspiracy to frame the guy and that the prosecution's case was tainted and unproved.

In his little chat with the Times, Simpson told of all the cheering as he drove home from court following the verdict. "Thousands of people were giving me the thumbs-up sign. But what did I see on TV that night? The two negative signs."

So on the one hand he wants to use the media to make his case but on the other he is resentful of the message.

He wants it both ways and, largely, he seems to be getting what he wants. There is new talk of a pay-per-view spectacular (Imus producer Bernard McGuirk suggests Ike Turner do the interview). Larry King is out there, ready and apparently willing. Diane Sawyer, anyone? Book deals? They are bidding as we speak. And do you think Larry Schiller is the only fellow going around selling access?

O.J. Simpson is soiled goods and not even Johnnie Cochran's eloquently indignant pieties can change that.

If he had at all a sense of taste and of propriety, O.J. would now vanish into a decent obscurity as a footnote to history, would cease tearing away along racial lines, an already fraying national fabric. But no. There is a dollar to be made and rascals like Rev. Farrakhan to be mollified, there are divisions of color to be exploited, there are trading cards and similar collectibles from which profit can be milked.

There is no end to mischief when you deal with this dreadful man and his appalling legacy.

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