Whether you were a fan of the "King of Pop" or not, his passing is big, big news. Look at the news networks today. Aside from the occasional update on the Mark Sanford train wreck, it's been nearly non-stop coverage of Jackson's death.
And for those who pay attention to presidential politics, you'd know that issuing official statements when a high profile individual passes on is commonplace (although the Obama White House has only issued four thus far). And despite Jackson's seclusion from the public over the past many years, his star power is/was unmatched.
So why no statement from President Obama?
From the podium
Moments before he had just delivered a rather blase' accounting of a conversation he had with the president on the issue.
“I talked to him about it this morning,” Gibbs said. “He said to me that obviously Michael Jackson was a spectacular performer and a music icon and I think everybody remembers hearing his songs and watching him moonwalk on television during Motown’s 25th anniversary.”
"But the president also said aspects of his life were sad and tragic,” Gibbs continued. “His condolences went out to the Jackson family and to fans that mourned his loss."
Despite his lukewarm approach, the decision to handle it this way was discussed. It was planned. Rarely does something just happen at the White House.
This is not to say White House aides were up all night hotly debating the issue and agonizing over making the decision. That surely didn't happen. Regardless, the decision not to issue a piece of paper (electronic or not) that said "Statement by the President" was deliberate.
What was the thinking behind it? Hard to say exactly. But appropriateness plays a big role as does perception.
By putting out an official White House statement on a celebrity, what message does it send? This celebrity had unmatched star power. His impact on society is/was immeasurable. His contributions to music, culture, and entertainment could be unsurpassed.
But then there's the dark side. And that dark side is loud. And unforgettable. As longtime CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller blogged today, "He was a world-renowned superstar, but there are parts of his life that hardly merit words of tribute from an American President."
These are the two competing values that the White House communications office had to balance in making the decision.
It's not as though President Obama wouldn't talk about Jackson. The press had their chance this morning to ask him about it at his press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. They didn't ask. So they asked Gibbs.
Having worked in politics for most of my professional life (including in George W. Bush's White House), I was surprised with the decision. Not that I think it was necessarily wrong, but to me Jackson just seemed too big not to.
So I asked a former colleague, Mark Pfeifle, what he thought. Pfeifle was the communications director for the National Security Council in the White House from 2007 - 2009.
"Jackson's passing is a national moment -- an odd one, but I would have advised releasing a statement that praised his contributions to the music and pop culture world, but carefully balanced his very unusual and controversial life. In some ways his life was like watching a car wreck in slow motion," he said.
What's the downside to issuing a formal statement?
"Releasing downside is alleged victims could come out against the release or people could claim that the President is not focused on the economy -- kind of like the big luau in the Rose Garden yesterday (small chance on both)," Pfeifle added.
Is it different in California? After all, Governor Schwarzenegger (who I also worked for), issued a statement immediately. My former colleague and current press secretary to Schwarzenegger, Aaron McLear, said there was little discussion.
"No drama--Governor wanted to issue a statement so he did," McLear said.
And Schwarzenegger threaded the needle noting Jackson's pluses and minuses.
“Today, the world has lost one of the most influential and iconic figures in the music industry. From his performances with the Jackson 5, to the premiere of the ‘moonwalk’ and ‘Thriller,’ Michael was a pop phenomenon who never stopped pushing the envelope of creativity," Schwarzenegger said.
"Though there were serious questions about his personal life, Michael was undoubtedly a great entertainer and his popularity spanned generations and the globe. Maria and I join all Californians in expressing our shock and sadness over his death and our hearts go out to the Jackson family, Michael’s children and to his fans worldwide."
All in all, does it matter much? Not really. Despite the venom displayed by some with strong feelings on both sides -- evidenced here -- this part of the story is over.
The legacy of Michael Jackson, on the other hand, will keep going.
By the way, do you know the story of why Jackson started wearing one white glove? Click here to read about it.
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