One may smile and smile Robert Tashman inspects O J Simpson's self-defence manual

I WANT TO TELL YOU: My Response to Your Letters, Your Messages, Your Questions O J Simpson Little, Brown £12.99 Prior to the murders, the more amiable Simpson was, the finer his character seemed to be; today, the more amiable he is, the worse he may appe

As a teenager in Los Angeles in the late Sixties, I loved history and sports; my heroes were A J P Taylor and O J Simpson. At that time, Simpson played football for the University of Southern California; he went on to have an outstanding professional career but it was in college that he performed most spectacularly. He was a new sort of football runner: he combined bruising power with elusiveness. (The claim made by his defence attorneys, that he was physically incapable of committing the murders of which he is accused, seems far-fetched.)

Off the field he was generous and self-deprecating, an exemplary sportsman. For most of his life he played for an unsuccessful team, but he did not complain or sulk. After leaving football he became a broadcaster and film actor; his series of car rental commercials with Arnold Palmer, the renowned and politically conservative golfer, were regarded as pathbreaking for their portrayal of a black man enjoying success equal to that of a white. Throughout, he maintained a kind of intimacy with an adoring public to whom he was "OJ" or "Juice".

Simpson was distinctive in that he had known success in one area, and was enjoying it in another, disproving Scott Fitzgerald's famous dictum that there are no second acts in American life. A comparable figure in England would have to develop a persona that combined the jauntiness of Botham, the decency of Lineker and the good humour of Gascoigne. Last year, though, Americans were told that Simpson may also be a brute and a weakling, a bored and abusive man ruled by denatured emotions.

From his jail cell, Simpson has produced a De Profundis which whether or not it is true, is skilful in exploiting and suppressing his earlier persona. I Want to Tell You may not be convincing as a whole, but parts of it seem authentic and are compelling; it is abundant with clichs, but there are also insights. Simpson's task is to invoke the former smiling image but adapt it to his new circumstances. Prior to the murders of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman, the more amiable Simpson was, the finer his character seemed to be; today, the more amiable he is, the worse he may appear.

The text consists of edited remarks that Simpson made in conversations with Lawrence Schiller, the journalist and TV producer who conducted interviews for Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song. It is interspersed with letters he has received in jail, many of them supportive, others not. Three hundred thousand people have written to him. Schiller and Simpson are familiar with the arts of rhetoric, and understand that the most effective way to counter the view that Simpson is completely bad is for him to acknowledge that he may not be completely good. It is also useful for him to put his detractors in the most negative light possible, and to that end, several sick, racist letters to him are printed. In places Simpson is surprisingly frank: he even admits to a financial motive in writing the book. One correspondent asks why, if he is innocent, he is reluctant to undergo DNA testing. He answers that he has learned that the test is unreliable; moreover, he knows he is innocent.

Simpson flatly denies involvement in the murders and prudently does not deal with specific details that might implicate him. He emphasizes character over evidence: "Anyone who knows me knows that I'm innocent." He speaks straightforwardly of his divorce from his wife, of a new girlfriend, and of subsequent relations with his wife; as if to suggest that if he did have lingering feelings for Nicole, they were manageable. He mentions Othello, and says comparisons are unfair. There are many glossy colour photographs of Simpson with family and friends, and with Nicole, but they are lurid and unedifying. In the text he is sentimental about his family and marriage. He says that spousal abuse is an important social problem but that he cannot discuss it further, for it will be an issue in his trial.

Simpson protests, but not too much. He describes the degradation of life in jail. He has learned harsh truths about racism; he complains that he is being treated, by the press and the institutions of justice, as a guilty man. Although he is bitter, he is much less so than when his confinement began, for he has read the Book of Job, and experienced an awakening of religious feeling. He would probably wish to emphasize that his religious faith has given him the strength to endure bad publicity and an unjust accusation, not to engage in repentance for a misdeed. Indeed, his profession of faith is more convincing than it might be for its being good-humoured: he is amusing about the devotional mannerisms of his friend Roosevelt Grier, a gigantic former lineman. But most of the religious matter is directed to a particular audience. During the first month and a half of his imprisonment, when his girlfriend Paula Barbieri visited him, "all we talked about was Scripture".

In some places Simpson is persuasive, but he is not wholly convincing. And there is a feeling that the story is tailored for effect. He and Schiller can also go too far in drawing sympathv by making concessions to doubters and opponents. Schiller says that he interviewed Simpson, but none of his questions are printed. He intervenes only once after his introduction to the book, not to state a question but to describe Simpson breaking down and weeping.

The problem, from Simpson's point of view, is that the portrait of him that emerges is, in spite of the self-deprecation, as one-sided as that created by the media prior to the murders. And there seems to be a contradiction: although Simpson does not fully explain the famous ride in the white Bronco, he states that, in addition to grieving for his wife, he was distraught over the presumption of his guilt by the previously fawning media; he claims to have been surprised by subsequent betrayals in the press, but also to be able to disregard what others say about him because he knows he is innocent. Even allowing for his claim that he came to be stoical about public perceptions gradually, through religious faith, it is difficult to reconcile his stating repeatedly that the important point is that he knows he is innocent with his suggestion that it can be as emotionally trying to seem guilty of murder as to be guilty of it. That the collapse of his public persona was part of the impetus for the Bronco ride may be true, whether he committed the murders or not. It emerges, by the way, that the ride was a Borgesian episode: Simpson recalls that for part of the journey he was listening to the radio coverage of it.

Simpson's trial is watched daily by millions of Americans for whom it satisfies a yearning for something more formal than the usual TV fare. The proceedings are often bizarre. The prosecution has made much of Simpson's reporting to a friend, after the murders, that he had had dreams of murdering his wife: as if his having had good dreams about her would help prove his innocence.

The racial element is obvious, and is being exploited by lawyers on both sides, but it is secondary. Simpson's flight, arrest, imprisonment, and trial offer the spectacle-in a culture that grants excessive status to athletes and actors, and under fast-changing economic circumstances that have caused many people to worry that they will lose their jobs - of a man's sudden, irrevocable loss of stature and credibility. There is more fear than pity in the public's interest.

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