The tendency to moralise, the appetite for trash

studies what the trial reveals about a nation's soul

Believe it or not, as the word "unique" again becomes the most overworked word in the American language, we have been here before. It was 1935, year of the first and - for connoisseurs - the enduring Trial of the Century, when Bruno Hauptmann was convicted of the kidnap and murder of the baby son of the aviator Charles Lindbergh who, unlike Orenthal James Simpson, truly then was the most famous man alive.

When the similarly sequestered jury produced its verdict 60 years ago, 6,000 people, including Jack Benny, Ford Madox Ford, Damon Runyon and 400 less celebrated hacks were on hand in the tiny New Jersey town of Flemington, while an AP reporter scooped the world from the courtroom with a radio microphone. Now we are live from LA, in the age of the global village. But the principle is unchanged: a garish extravaganza, where life has first imitated and then surpassed art, amid utter media abandon.

Stripped to its essentials, the OJ trial has been a poor-quality television soap opera run amok: in the words of Lance Morrow, the resident essayist of Time magazine this week, "a perfect demonstration of how the American tendency to moralise has gone into partnership with the American appetite for trash". Into this mix might also be stirred the country's love-hate relationship with the law, and the overarching power of television.

Indubitably, the interests of brevity and legal manners would have been better served by keeping the camera out of the courtroom. The reckoning is not all bad: Americans have learned much about the technicalities of their legal system, the days of numbingly tedious testimony and abstruse points of procedure, discussed in countless attorney huddles, which are the stuff of any trial.

But in the Simpson saga television, supreme adjudicator of fame and fortune in the contemporary US, has turned justice into a circus. Defence and prosecution lawyers alike have danced to its tune, pitching their case as much to the general public as to the 12 jurors whose views were ultimately the only ones that mattered.

As murder cases go, the State of California vs OJ Simpson is pretty routine, apart from the identity of the defendant. Without television, it would have been over in two months, not nine. Television has exposed the bloated business of celebrity law in its full self-important silliness - not just the strutting, hot-shot defence attorneys but the parasites who flourish in a system where the letter of the law so easily displaces common sense: the witness coaches, the highly-paid consultants who have turned jury selection into a small industry, and sundry other "experts" of every hue. Alas, the market is there.

Three cable networks, CNN, Court TV and the E! (Entertainment) channel, ran gavel-to-gavel coverage, with CNN reporting a fivefold jump in ratings from the Before-OJ era when news consisted of mere trivialities like Bosnia, Haiti and the massacres in Rwanda. Once it began, the Trial was always there - if not live, then via replays of key testimony and the incessant chatter of rent-a-mouth lawyers, all blurring into a seamless and timeless separate universe.

And it must be said, OJ outsoaped the soaps. The case had everything: race, celebrities, the LA high life, and brutal murder. It could be scored from the armchair, like a football game. Occasionally it would yield pride of place to great events in the world beyond - the Republican sweep of Congress, the Oklahoma City bombing and the continuing agony of Bosnia. But each would subside, and the Simpson case took over the American consciousness again, hypnotic and (as someone remarked of the French) bottomless in its superficiality.

With the possible exception of the Gulf War, America has not had a topic of conversation to match it since the Kennedy assassination. Since January, OJ has accounted for more minutes of coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC prime- time news than Bosnia and Oklahoma combined, and 13 times as much as the debate on Medicare - whose outcome truly will affect the lives of every American. It has been meat and drink for hundreds - make that thousands - of talk shows. Larry King, CNN's star chat-show host, has lived off it, and so have his imitators. Throughout, Gresham's law has operated to perfection. The bad has consistently driven out the good, and just when it seemed it couldn't get any tackier, it did.

During that earlier festival of bad taste, the Lindbergh trial, one reporter prised the tiny coffin open to photograph the decayed remains of the 20-month-old baby. Six decades later, the Globe tabloid has provided an equally tawdry footnote to the Simpson case by publishing crime scene photos of the hacked and bloody corpses of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. "An important news event," said the paper, which refused to specify how much it had paid, and to whom, for its scoop.

Which leads to the other villain of the piece: money. The trial and its spin-offs like books, souvenirs and the higher television advertising rates it generated, are reckoned to equal the GDP of a middle-sized Central American nation. Nor is it over: jurors will sell their memoirs for small fortunes (though at least they've earned them), while the bidding for "exclusives" will reach the stratosphere: "You name it, we'll top it," as one television producer put it this week. Hence the hype, essential to keep up the ratings which pay for it all. Hence the psychobabble about the "defining event of the 1990s", and a "Shakespearean drama" featuring "the Othello of the 20th century".

In fact the OJ case, unlike the Lindbergh affair which generates controversy to this day, may be quickly forgotten. The trial has been less tragedy than farce, a spectacle defining nothing except the blindingly obvious, that race is an enduring problem in the US, and that the human species likes to be entertained.

Looking back on 15 lunatic months, the character who best conveys their flavour is not Johnnie Cochran, Judge Lance Ito, Marcia Clark or the genuinely tragic figure of Fred Goldman, the victim's father, nor even the Moor of Rockingham Avenue himself - but a vapid failed actor and Simpson house guest called Brian "Kato" Kaelin. A few days in the witness box last spring briefly made him the most famous man in America. Kato who?

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