- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Good career move. The Hollywood assessment of the death of Elvis Presley 30 years ago eerily applies to Michael Jackson, too. Every great entertainer knows it’s important to get off the stage before the hook.

The death of Michael Jackson, with its unanswered questions and the exposure of the smarmy troupe of freeloaders, hangers-on and cockroaches crawling out of the dark places of his life, make this the perfect Hollywood tale of sex, money and sudden death. The media, including even newspapers that once could be counted on to put events in proper context, are throwing one long, drunken, inky bacchanalia, endlessly indulging round after round of trivia and manufactured sensation. P.T. Barnum lies green (with envy) in his grave.

Oscar Levant’s description of Hollywood — “it’s made of tinsel, but once you get beneath the tinsel, you’ll find the real tinsel” — is writ large, and we all live in Hollywood now. The death of Michael Jackson is our Princess Diana moment. Such vast outpourings of alligator tears and synthetic sincerity were once reserved for mourning presidents. In the age of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, the small looms large.

Celebrity grief, like the real thing, unfolds in stages. The first stage is the work of Michael’s fellow celebrities. They’re doing their jobs well, as we expect professional actors to do. Elizabeth Taylor, still famous for once having been the most beautiful woman in the world, led the way. “My heart … my mind are broken,” she said. Madonna “can’t stop crying.” Lisa Marie Presley, basking one more time in the eminence of the ex-wife, is “sad and confused with every possible emotion possible.” Justin Timberlake, wary of verbal malfunction, “can’t find the words.”

Mocking authentic grief is unforgivable, of course, and it’s possible that somewhere, in a fantasy factory in a galaxy far away beyond the man-made stars, a genuine tear is coursing down a glittery cheek. But many of the sentiments sound like the work of unimaginative press agents, anxious to brighten the dimming luster of clients pushed by the passage of time to the edge of the spotlight.

When the inevitable shadows beckon, you have to step into whatever reflected light you can find. Jane Fonda is “stunned” by grief, but not too stunned to remind whoever is listening that “[Michael] lived with me for a week on the ‘Golden Pond’ set after ‘Thriller.’ ” Britney Spears planned to take a break from her own show in Europe (tickets available at a box office near you) to visit him in London, but now his star is just a scorched place in the firmament. Paris Hilton is laid low with grief, and she reminds everybody that “Michael Jackson and his kids were just at my house, only a few months ago.”

The second stage of this mourning exercise begins with the arrival of the major-league scam artists. The inevitable reverends, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, have landed and even now are erecting competing circus tents. Rev. Al, always on the scout for the racial slight, says, “Michael Jackson made culture accept a person of color way before Tiger Woods, way before Oprah, way before Barack Obama.”

Mr. Jesse hints at what’s coming next. “The family has questions … There is concern about what happened the last 12 hours of Michael’s life … the doctor did not confer with the family … he was missing in action … he surfaced with a lawyer … No one is in a position of accusing the doctor … There may be plausible answers, but we don’t know … .”

Unanswered questions there may be, but it’s not too soon to wake up and smell the money. There’s got to be some dollars scattered around here somewhere. What we do know is that the ghouls have just begun. The television camera misleads the masses to think they’re buddies with the objects of their fantasies. Princess Diana became “the people’s princess” because London shop girls imagined that “she’s just like us.” Hank Williams’ widow recalls how the death of the country-music legend became a circus when Nashville twinklies showed up with guitars and “everybody who could croak a note wanted to sing at his funeral.”

Timing is everything, and Michael Jackson departs with the bang he couldn’t have made with his remaining talent. He leaves behind a mountain of debt, feuding relatives, greedy promoters, angry creditors and the legacy of a bizarre, drug-addled life, of pursuing a walk to the moon with little boys, to what end nobody can be sure. We can well imagine. And of course the legacy of considerable talent.

• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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