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Obama on Michael Jackson: A crossover racial figure who created 'comfort level' for African American public figures

July 7, 2009 | 10:31 am

Pop icon Michael Jackson performing in 2001 at Madison Square Garden with his signature white glove

Pop star icon Michael Jackson is the only thing people around the world want to talk about today.

And President Obama couldn't help notice that he no longer has the megaphone. Even in Moscow, where he was meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin on such hot-button issues as nuclear arms, fans created a makeshift shrine to Jackson in front of the U.S. Embassy, leaving photographs, Orthodox Christian icons, votive candles and personal messages.

So the president offered a round of interviews with American journalists, opining on nuclear weapons. Still,  the journalists wanted to talk about was Michael Jackson. So Obama complied, sounding a bit, well, rueful about having to wait out the international outpouring of love.

With ABC's Jake Tapper, Obama joked that the only way he would get on television would be to discuss Jackson. He explained it this way: “Michael Jackson, like Elvis, like Sinatra, when somebody who’s captivated the imagination of the country for that long passes away, people pay attention and I assume at some point people will start focusing again on things like nuclear weapons.”

Asked by NBC's Chuck Todd about the Rev. Al Sharpton's assertion that Jackson, whose popularity crossed racial lines, paved the way for mainstream acceptance of top-name African American talents like  Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods and himself, Obama said:

What I do believe is that black sports figures and black entertainers helped to create a comfort level with African Americans that had an impact historically dating back to people like Sidney Poitier or Louie Armstrong, up through Michael Jackson. So I would say that he's part of a long line of black entertainers that had an impact on the culture.

And seeking to explain the international fascination for Jackson that was robbing the White House of its usual dominance on the international stage, Obama told CBS: "There are certain figures in our popular culture that just capture peoples' imagination, and in death they become even larger. I have to admit that it's also fed by a 24/7 media that is insatiable." 


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Comparing Jackson's passing to that of Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Frank Sinatra, Obama said: "It's not surprising people are mourning the loss." 

At the end of its interview with the president, as if to confirm Obama's instincts, CBS urged readers to click on a link "for complete coverage of Michael Jackson's death and today's memorial."

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo credit: AFP / Getty Images

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