Jewish World Review April 5, 2004 /14 Nissan 5764
Pop star's thriller on Capitol Hill
WASHINGTON Yes, that really was Michael Jackson and not an early April Fools' Day joke standing with members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Capitol Hill last week.
Sure, it was odd. But when members of Congress stand with the 45-year-old "King of Pop," I guess it is hard to tell which side is taking the bigger risk to its reputation.
Jackson came to Capitol Hill last week while a secret grand jury back in Santa Barbara, Calif., heard evidence of child molestation charges against him. Jackson called the charges "a big lie." I have heard members of Congress spout the same thing when they were nailed by charges of wrongdoing. Sometimes they were right. With that in mind, it is only fair that we should presume Jackson's innocence until he is proved to be otherwise.
Nevertheless, timing matters. Honoring Jackson while clouds of suspicion hover over his head is about as ill-timed in my view as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's recent nomination of the R&B star Robert Sylvester "R. Kelly" Kelly for one of its coveted Image Awards.
That nomination came while Kelly was under investigation for various child pornography charges. Sure, he, too, is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proved guilty. The Florida charges and some of the Illinois charges already have been dropped.
Nevertheless, as concerned as I am about promoting good role models for our youths, I questioned whether R. Kelly's image was the sort of "image" that the NAACP wants to promote while charges are still pending against him.
Fortunately, NAACP head Kweise Mfume agreed. Even before the final awards were announced, with Luther Vandross beating out Kelly for the "best album" honors, Mfume said a new morals clause would be included in future awards rules. Good move.
But now here comes black congressmen standing with Jackson, resplendent in a red-sequined Sgt. Pepper-style jacket and facing a gaggle of reporters and TV cameras in the Rayburn House Office Building.
In town to be honored by diplomatic spouses for his help in the fight against AIDS in Africa, Jackson also met with Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), Georgia Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee and just about every other member of Congress who did not run and hide.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., the Chicago Democrat who is no relation to the pop star, helped me to understand why CBC members turned out so mightily for a man whose presence appeared to cause many other House members to dart behind closed doors.
"We never would have gotten this many reporters to come if Michael Jackson weren't here," he said.
He had that right. And that's a sad story in itself. Some 30 million people, including 3 million children under age 3, are reported to have the AIDS virus in Africa, but that catastrophe does not have the media drawing power of a pop superstar.
So, if Jackson is using the 39-member caucus to polish his image, the caucus is also using him to draw attention to a broken promise by President Bush. Remember his 2003 State of the Union address? He grandly promised $15 billion in new money to fight AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis in Africa and the Caribbean over the next five years. Two million people in 14 countries would receive lifesaving antiretroviral therapy, he said.
But, after the applause died down, Bush proposed to wait a year and begin the "emergency" funding with small amounts that would be increased later. Instead of $3 billion a year in each of the five years, he proposed starting with much less and working up gradually to the full amount.
As a result, after more than a year only about $350 million has been committed while, according to the World Health Organization, another 2.5 million Africans with AIDS have died.
As one United Nations AIDS official said, it is hard to imagine the United States would pay as little attention if those victims were white instead of black. Indeed it is.
With that in mind, I begin to understand why some black caucus members are so desperate for attention to the AIDS crisis that they cluster around a "King of Pop" who has seen better days. It's not easy for a caucus of minorities in a minority party to get attention, let alone respect, on Capitol Hill. When nothing else works, as they say in show biz, you go over the top. For all of his weirdness, Michael Jackson is an expert at getting attention, just as President Bush can be pretty adept at avoiding it.
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