Posted on August 30, 2009
I stole this idea from my good friend Gayle Osterberg. She pointed out to me the interesting connection between Ted Kennedy, Michael Vick and Michael Jackson, and how they all did (or were accused of doing) things that are unacceptable in civilized society, but were able to find redemption in the hearts of the American people.
How they redeemed themselves (or are attempting to) says much about our celebrity-centric society.
It may seem odd to put Kennedy, Vick and Jackson in the same sentence. The King of Pop, the Last Lion of the Senate and Philadelphia’s newest quarterback don’t seem to have much in common.
Kennedy was involved in a traffic accident that killed a former assistant to his brother, and was accused of walking away from the scene of the crime, assumed to be drunk at the time, and tarred with the broad brush of being a murderer. For that, he got the Massachusetts equivalent of a slap on the wrist.
Vick was accused and convicted of killing dogs. A far cry from killing a person, but for the millions of dog lovers out there, killing a dog is pretty close to the same thing. He got much more than a slap on the wrist. He served two years of hard time in a Federal prison, and lost millions of dollars in lost salary. He paid his debt to society for killing those dogs, and then some.
Jackson, of course, was charged with molesting kids. In my book, that is one of the reasons we have a death penalty, to put child molesters to death. But the one-gloved wonder was able to escape conviction by basically paying off the parents of one of the kids that he was accused of sleeping with. He maintained that his actions were “non-sexual” but very few people outside his family believed him. As Peter King memorably put it, Jackson was seen by most as a pervert, but at the same time, a damn good dancer.
Kennedy’s road to redemption was paved with the best of intentions, although conservatives hated him not only for his drunken driving, but also because his legislative philosophy was so at odds with their own. The Lion of the Senate, as he admitted in his secret (well, not so secret, now) letter to Pope Benedict, was an imperfect human. He caroused too much, he drank too much, he womanized too much, and of course, he killed somebody. He also changed his position on abortion, from pro-life to pro-choice, which usually puts Catholics in a tough spot, since the Catholic hierarchy is so dead-set against the killing of unborn babies, something he didn’t seem to mention in his letter. The Senator asked the Holy Father for his blessing, despite his imperfections, and the Pope --like the media and seemingly more than half of America – gave it to him. I am still trying to figure out how Kennedy can get away with the whole divorce thing and get a papal blessing, but I digress.
Michael Jackson’s death seemed to be enough for his road to redemption. Jacko didn’t seem to do any kind of contrition to deserve the hero’s send off that he got when he kicked the bucket earlier this summer. There was no confession, no acknowledgment of the pain he suffered (other than the money he lost in the pay-off), no seeming desire to work back into the graces of God and the general public. In fact, it seems that Jackson killed himself with drugs as an escape from his sins. But once he died, all was forgiven. It was 1982 again, and Thriller was the only thing the media wanted to talk about. Let’s talk about the music, and what Michael did for us. Amid it all, Al Sharpton made the amazing charge that anybody who brought up Michael’s weird sex proclivities was a racist, and strangely, that seemed to work. All was forgiven!!! Now, let’s dance.
For the other Michael, the road back was harder, even though the offense was arguably less egregious. Yes, killing dogs is bad, and it shouldn’t be condoned. But at least he didn’t kill a person or abuse a child. Vick is not the household name that either Kennedy or Jackson was, so that was another roadblock in his way. Vick’s road to redemption included jail time, and a loss of his fortune. When he did the obligatory 60 Minutes interview, he actually did look contrite. He knows what he did to screw up his career was stupid. And you can tell, he is not going to go back to the life of dog fighting again. For Vick, the next step is to kick some butt on the football field, and forget the whole dog thing ever happened. And there is some precedent for that in the NFL. Think Ray Lewis (who actually did kill a person, not just a dog) and whose reputation as a bad ass was seemingly enhanced by that crime.
There is also some precedent for a disgraced politician becoming a grand elder. Richard Nixon comes to mind. After he left, his name was reviled, but when he died, he exited the stage a wise solon. Bill Clinton disgraced himself with an intern, but was able to survive politically in the next election, and now finds himself jetting off to places like North Korea to rescue two damsels in distress.
And there are several politicians who are trying actively to find their own road to redemption. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned after getting caught hiring a hot prostitute for a lot of money, appears occasionally on CNBC to talk about politics and business, although not about what he learned from the criminal justice system or about the legality of hiring hookers. Mark Sanford, who famously flew to Argentina to find his true love ( who happened to not be his wife) is trying to survive in his job, and in his life (it looks like his wife is about ready to kill him any minute now), and he has decided that the best way to redemption is to keep himself in the news, making a complete fool of himself ( a new twist on the self-flaggellation), and continue to embarrass his lovely wife.
While it is unclear if either Spitzer or Sanford will ultimately successfully find redemption, the chances are pretty good that they will.
The lesson here is that America is a pretty forgiving place. We believe in the power of redemption. Sometimes you have to work hard at it, as Senator Kennedy did. Sometimes you have to do a little hard time and then succeed on the football field. And sometimes you just have to die, but have a few catchy songs and a few nifty dance moves attached to your name.