"It has this sense of finality," said a CNN reporter Tuesday at the end of the Michael Jackson memorial service.
Yes, pictures of a casket being lifted into a hearse and driven away will do that for you.
Yet the beat goes on. On Wednesday, there was Jackson's skin doctor on ABC, announcing that he was not, "to the best of my knowledge," the biological father of Jackson's two oldest children. (Isn't that the sort of question a person's dermatologist should be able to answer without hedging?) The mayor of Los Angeles wondered if fans wouldn't like to chip in to help the city pay for the cost of crowd control. And the coroner's office is still working on the autopsy. ("They Saved Michael Jackson's Brain!" announced E! Online.)Meanwhile, in Washington the House Foreign Affairs Committee is weighing a 1,500-word resolution in Jackson's honor.
Why, you may ask, is this the job of the Foreign Affairs Committee? Exactly the same question the committee members were undoubtedly asking, although on Wednesday they were too busy holding a hearing on nuclear cooperation with the United Arab Emirates to have much comment.
Perhaps because the resolution calls Jackson a "global" humanitarian. Perhaps because the House has not yet created a Committee on Controversial Musical Icons.
Anyhow, it's there. The resolution was introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas. It praises the entertainer's charitable activities, perhaps in more detail than is absolutely necessary. ("Whereas in December 1991, Michael's office MJJ Productions donated more than 200 turkey dinners to needy families in Los Angeles. ...")Jackson Lee gave a long and emotional speech at the memorial, in which she claimed to be appearing on behalf of the entire House of Representatives. All of whom, she seemed to suggest, owed their careers to the singer. ("He called us into public service. ...")People tend to get carried away when someone famous dies, so it's best not to be hypercritical about the eulogies. Still, it was a little peculiar hearing Brooke Shields' weepy testimony about her deep friendship with Jackson given the fact that she told reporters that the last time she saw him was at Elizabeth Taylor's eighth wedding in 1991. And while Jackson Lee correctly pointed out that Jackson was acquitted of all charges in that child molestation trial, nobody really wants their memorial service dotted with comments like "People are innocent until proven otherwise."
The media, for its part, plans to continue talking about Michael Jackson for quite a while - this is the first time since the election that we feel we have everyone's attention. The practice of churning out stories about a deceased celebrity for as long as possible is an old tradition. It used to be known as the "John Garfield Still Dead" syndrome, after the extensive post-funeral coverage of a movie star who had a fatal heart attack in 1952 in the bed of a woman other than his wife.
When I worked as a wire service reporter, there was a legendary tale about funeral overkill involving Daniel Patrick O'Connell, the political boss of Albany who died in 1977. Because O'Connell had run the town since 1919, this was a huge local story. There were many headlines about the death, the wake, the burial. Then ... what next? A beleaguered editor at UPI finally solved the problem by filing an update that said: "Today, God said hello as thousands said goodbye to Daniel Patrick O'Connell." It became a cautionary story about how not to freshen a lead.
The government, at least, can let Michael Jackson go.
Jackson Lee's Resolution No. 600 "honoring an American legend and musical icon" is not going to make it through the House without a fight, given the fact that Rep. Peter King, a Long Island Republican, discovered over the Fourth of July weekend that he could get several hundred thousand hits on YouTube with a home video in which he called Jackson a "pervert" and unfavorably compared the singer to fallen firefighters.
If I were running the world, I'd find a way to misplace the paperwork or change the subject. "We're running out of dead people to name post offices after," suggested the committee's vice chairman, Gary Ackerman of Queens, thoughtfully.
America is a sea of woe these days, and we want to believe our elected representatives are spending every waking minute trying to help. Deep in our hearts, we know that many of them wouldn't know what to do with a problem if they had it captured in a glass jar with no air holes. But we prefer not to be reminded of their uselessness by hearing that they spent their time arguing about whether the King of Pop deserves a posthumous ceremonial commendation.
If you can't do anything serious, guys, it's really better not to do anything at all. Spend your free time in prayer and contemplation.
Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach her c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, 10018.
© 2009 New York Times News Service