On a visit to Australia in the late 1960s, formidable American writer Gore Vidal mused on the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Vidal told a story that might even be true. At a meeting in the White House with his leading defence and military advisers, LBJ was being given a report on the state of the war in Vietnam.
In particular, reference was made to the sieges of US garrisons at places such as Con Thien and Khe Sanh, the latter emerging as legend. All the Americans were conscious that the US could not afford to lose a battle of the scale of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. This had cost the French the colonial war in 1954.
To emphasise the point that American defeat in Vietnam was unthinkable, the President stood and unzipped his fly. Exposing his sensitive parts, the president pointed downwards and declared: “Them damned Viet Congs ain’t going to get these.”
Vidal ended his tale with the scathing comment: “I live in a country beyond satire.”
All too true and, if anything, the US in the present age has moved well beyond the outer limits of satire. But in a polarised America, the music of the passing parade can rhyme to a disturbing degree with earlier tumults.
Consider the current legal proceedings against the 45th president, Donald Trump. It is useful to observe that at the convergence in US of politics, the law and media lies celebrity.
In our age, this is even more pronounced, as former British Labour PM Jim Callaghan argued thoughtfully on the death of Princess Diana; organised religion in the West has largely been replaced by the worship of celebrity.
The fascination with celebrity in America is now on full view with the charges against Trump being pursued by the Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg Jr. The surging media at the arraignment hearing in New York City is a reminder of earlier celebrity trials and the pitfalls that need to be avoided. The first and foremost is the loss of the presumption of innocence, whether it be for Trump or anyone else before a court.
The Trump charges raise the most serious challenge to the authority of the president of the United States since Richard Nixon fell on his sword rather than be impeached during the Watergate scandal of 1974.
True, there have been other scandals, such as the Iran Contra affair during the Reagan administration, or Bill Clinton’s tawdry liaison with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. But the charges against Trump involve allegations of consistent criminality.
The case may not be as serious as other potential charges arising out of the inquiries of Special Counsel Jack Smith on the January 6 insurrection or the allegations against Trump over potential interference in the election count in the state of Georgia. Yet it is important to note, and not just in passing, that this is the first occasion in which a former president has been subject to criminal prosecution.
Here we can observe a disarming parallel between the Trump legal circus in Manhattan and the trial of OJ Simpson in Los Angeles in 1995, arising from the murder of Simpson’s estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.
There is a direct link between the Simpson trial and the controversy that has surrounded Trump in the form of lawyer and retired Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz.
Dershowitz was part of the “dream team” defending Simpson in LA, and was also integral to Trump’s defence team opposing impeachment proceedings before the House of Representatives. Curiously, he has always maintained he voted for Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, and donated to her campaign. Nonetheless, he continues to be forthright in his advocacy for the former president, maintaining that Trump is not receiving a fair or square deal.
The extraordinary similarity between the two legal firefights is that it is in the court of public opinion that the defence phalanxes have concentrated their efforts. It is all about spectacle. This appears not to have been lost on the judge presiding over the Trump proceedings, New York Justice Juan Merchan, who has agreed with the Trump team that cameras should not have an oppressive presence in the courtroom. Under Judge Lance Allan Ito in the LA courtroom of 1995, the cameras became a distorting, perhaps defining, part of the proceedings, and Ito himself appeared to relish the attention.
The US media also lavished attention from the air upon the interminable white Ford Bronco chase along LA freeways, as OJ endeavoured to avoid legal consequences. It is estimated some 95 million Americans watched as AC Cowlings attempted to drive Simpson to an undisclosed destination, perhaps being Mexico.
Cowlings was one of those minor figures with whom we are familiar in the Trump proceedings, who had his 15 minutes of fame (thank you, Andy Warhol) as OJ’s sidekick. Naturally, he was reported as being a friend of one branch of the Kardashian family, and had a girlfriend who was supposedly a former porn star. Thirty years later, porn stars still seem to have their day.
The eerie media coverage of the convoy of black SUVs conveying Trump from the airport into Lower Manhattan simply rhymes with the obsession over the Ford Bronco during the Simpson circus. Who knows how many Americans watched the latest motorised event.
What all this means for US politics will emerge. Trump’s base is inflamed and engaged. But Middle America is unlikely to find this continuing fiasco electorally appealing.
Mark Twain, among many pithy asides, is recorded as saying: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” In the case of Simpson and Trump, the chimes have assumed an orchestral dimension and celebrity in America is the key to understanding why.