Wednesday, February 3, 2016

O.J., me & National Enquirer

It’s the wildest sort of speculation for me to imagine there’s a lot of office watercolor talk about “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” when I don’t even know if offices even have watercoolers anymore.
Heck, for all I know watercolors may have been replaced by pot dispensaries where harried workers stand around and say things like “Dude” and “Chill.”
See, it’s been a long time since I’ve smoked pot, too.
But a host of O.J. dramas has people buzzing about the what by any definition was the crime of the century.
We started watching the 10-part FX series last night and I hear the ESPN “30 for 30” extravaganza is well-done.
Not sure I can watch all that. I do not wish to OD on O.J.
Been there done that.
It was 1994-95.
The whole country sort of stopped what it was doing while the trial was going on.
My recollections of the era are colored by having been connected with The National Enquirer, which was referred to by prosecutors as “The Bible of O.J. Coverage.”
That honorific was first reported, not IN The Enquirer, but by The New York Times.
Understand, I didn’t write a single O.J. story back then. Never have.
But I was one of the magazine’s top feature writers. I did as many as four stories a week throughout the ‘90s.  I’d visit the Florida offices every six months and was on friendly terms with every reporter and editor in the building.
Unlike many sports fans, I wasn’t a huge fan of The Juice when he was setting rushing records for the Buffalo Bills. I revered only Steelers.
In fact, I didn’t become a really ardent fan of the Juice until 1988. That’s when he appeared in the first of three “Naked Gun!” movies with the incomparable Leslie Nielsen.
I remember thinking, man, this guy can really act, albeit in a way Moe, Larry and Curly did.
It was pure slapstick. And I love that movie. Love it!
Fun fact: His first screen credit was as a police recruit on a 1968 episode of “Dragnet.”
Yes, the man who would eventually be prosecuted by the LAPD once played an actor trying to become LAPD.
So, like everyone, I was shocked when he was charged with killing his wife and waiter Ron Goldman. Appalled because it was clear he did it.
Where did you watch the slow-speed chase? Surely, you were one of the 95 million on June 17, 1994, who did.
I saw the start of it from a press tent at Oakmont Country Club, site of that year’s U.S. Open. I’d snagged a press pass.
The day in hindsight was for me rich in irony.
I was in that press tent to watch the weepy retirement from U.S. Open golf of local legend Arnold Palmer, a man who would eventually become a friend who’d provide the gushy cover endorsement for my book about things we can all do to make the world happier and more colorful.
On wall-to-wall TV in the adjacent room was the accused murderer on the run. It was surreal because Palmer and Simpson had starred together in a series of playful Herz Rent-a-Car commercials.
The man who was friends with kings and presidents was now (former) friends with a murderer.
I had a TV in the old basement office back then and I have no idea how I got any work done. Trial coverage was on round-the-clock.
CNN featured Roger Cossack and Greta Van Sustern, whom I in those pre-Twitter days joked to friends should be called “Handsome and Greta.” At night Jay Leno featured the burlesque of the Dancing Itos. 
The FX production is based on a book by legal expert Jeffrey Toobin, against whom I’ve nurtured a disdain for more than 20 years.
He was the on-air foil against Enquirer celebrity reporter Mike Walker.
Toobin was always disparaging The Enquirer, even as the international scoops kept piling up.
I remember him one time haranguing Walker about checkbook journalism. He said, “Will you admit you pay for stories?”
Oh, he really thought he had Walker on the ropes. Instead, Walker reached down and picked up a novelty check with $1 million on it and said, “We certainly do and this one is for anyone who can provide credible evidence that will stand up in court proving Simpson is guilty!”
It was beautiful.
I remember some nervous immigrant clerk being grilled on the witness stand for taking, I think, $15,000 for The Enquirer exclusive about how he sold Simpson the murder knife.
Johnny Cochran was relentless in his badgering. He accused the man of being tainted.
Clearly, rattled by the accusation, the witness said: “The Enquirer said they would only pay me if I was telling the truth! That’s all they wanted. The truth! They said there’d be big trouble if I didn’t tell them the truth! The Enquirer just wants the truth! The truth!”
Flustered, Cochran asked Ito to dismiss the witness as he kept babbling “Truth! Enquirer! Truth! Enquirer! Truth!”
I called the office and asked about the reaction. My editor said, “Oh, we’re having a party!”
That’s the truth. And, boy, could that gang party.
Funny, but yesterday Val and I took in an afternoon showing of “Spotlight.” It was fantastic. We both revere newspapers and great journalism.
I doubt they’ll ever make a movie about what The Enquirer did to bust the O.J. case wide open.
They found the Bruno Magli shoes, the “ugly ass” ones Simpson denied ever owning.
The Enquirer figured there had to be a picture of Simpson, one of the world’s most photographed men, wearing them.
They sent one of the top reporters — his name’s Larry Haley — to an NFL office that was a repository of stock photos of all its players and stars. They had maybe a million of Simpson.
Haley was tasked to look through every single one until he found even one of Simpson in the shoes the murderer wore.
Imagine that. Twenty-one days of nothing but poring over pictures of the same man.
He was there five weeks before he found one. You’ll see it in the show, I’m sure.
It’s the key evidence used to find Simpson liable in the wrongful death civil trail where California jurors chose to award Fred Goldman $33.5 million.
These shows will focus on the circus qualities of the trial that so appealed to both tabloid and mainstream media 20 years ago.
But they will do a criminal disservice to history if they don’t convey the woeful grief of the Goldman and Brown families feel from these bloody murders.
It’s why sometimes when I’m having a bad day I still remind myself that things can’t be that bad.
For today and every day, Osama bin Laden’s in hell and O.J.’s in jail.

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