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In death, Michael Jackson gets politicians' (cautious) admiration

June 27, 2009 |  2:18 am

Michael Jackson Ronald and Nancy Reagan at a White House ceremony in the 1980s

The sudden, so far unexplained death of pop singer Michael Jackson at age 50 this week prompted an immense outpouring of grief and curiosity and, among politicians at least, caution.

While expressing admiration for his musical and dancing skills, these elected officials were careful to distance themselves from the pop icon's troubled personal life. President Obama did it only secondhand through a spokesman.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, while praising Jackson as "one of the most influential and iconic figures in the music industry," was also careful to mention "serious questions about his personal life."

Obama, a noted music fan who's had entertainers such as Stevie Wonder perform at the White House, was noticeably absent from any public statement. Knowing questions would come up at the daily news  briefing, it was left to spokesman Robert Gibbs to provide a low-key, arms-distance description of the president's feelings.

We'll publish the entire White House exchange concerning Jackson below. What Gibbs basically said was the president saw Jackson as "a spectacular performer" but there were aspects of his life that were "sad and tragic."

Friday the House of Representatives paused briefly for a tribute moment of silence.

There also reemerged, thanks to the Associated Press, a 1980s memo written during the presidency of Ronald Reagan by a then-young White House attorney named John G. Roberts Jr., now chief justice of the Supreme Court. The issue was . . .

. . . whether the former movie star should send a letter of congratulations to Jackson for giving away some show tickets to poor Washington children.

“I hate sounding like one of Mr. Jackson's records, constantly repeating the same refrain," Roberts wrote in the memo, which came out during Roberts' 2005 confirmation hearings. "But I recommend we not approve this letter. Frankly I find the obsequious attitude of some members of the White House staff toward Mr. Jackson's attendants, and the fawning posture they would have the president of the United States adopt, more than a little embarrassing.”

Then Roberts raised the tired question of precedent that sends chills down bureaucrats' spine: What about other performers like Prince? How do we decide which to write and which to skip?

Friday the White House handled it without a letter, just some brief exchanges with reporters, making it clear they were going no further. (See below.)

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Exchanges between reporters and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Michael Jackson, June 26, 2009:

QUESTION: OK, I will ask. The president has talked a lot about his love of music. He hosted Stevie Wonder here. He has talked a great deal about what's on his iPod to Rolling Stone magazine. Well, what's his reaction to the death of Michael Jackson?

GIBBS: I talked to him about it this morning. Look, he said to me that obviously Michael Jackson was a spectacular performer, a music icon. I think everybody remembers hearing his songs, watching him "moonwalk" on television during Motown's 25th anniversary.

But the president also said, look, he had -- aspects of his life were sad and tragic. And his condolences went out to the Jackson family and to fans that mourned his loss.

Q: Why not a written statement, then?

GIBBS: Because I just said it.

Q: And you say he did send condolences to the family. Did he call the family personally?

GIBBS: Not that I know of. . . .

Q: Robert, I wondered if you knew if the president had ever met Michael Jackson in person, or if Mrs. Obama had ever met Michael Jackson?

GIBBS: He did not -- he did not tell me that he had. I can certainly check. I do not believe -- I do not believe they have. . . .

Q: Robert, back on Michael Jackson. Understanding that many people viewed him as a complicated mix, you still had other world leaders come out with written statements on Michael Jackson -- to include a leader here in the United States, Arnold Schwarzenegger, written statement; Nelson Mandela, others.

Why not issue a written statement for a man who has come to this White House, visited other presidents, been honored by other presidents for his humanitarian efforts? He also worked with the Democratic Party, which this president is the head of, helped fund-raise. Why not a written statement?

GIBBS: I thought I did a pretty good job.

Photo credit: Scott Stewart / Associated Press