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Michael Jackson and John Roberts' Reagan Flashback Week

June 26, 2009

For the second time in five days, the tide of current events washed ashore Chief Justice John Roberts' Reagan-era past. On Monday, Roberts authored the Court's majority opinion in the Austin case which almost realized his 1980's goal of gutting the Voting Rights Act. And as the New York Times recalled Friday, back in 1984 then associate White House counsel Roberts didn't have very kind words for the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
As Pulitzer Prize winner Charlie Savage recounted, the young John Roberts was none too keen to associate his boss with Jackson. After Jacko had visited the White House and later appeared at an event with President Reagan to combat drunk driving, Jackson's team asked for a letter from the Gipper to be included in a Billboard magazine special. The over-the-top text ("Your visit to the White House was a real 'thriller' for all of us here in the Nation's Capital") was more than Roberts could stomach. In rejecting the letter, he wrote:

"I recognize that I am something of a vox clamans in terris in this area, but enough is enough. The Office of Presidential Correspondence is not yet an adjunct of Michael Jackson's PR firm."

Three months later, Team Jackson again requested a letter from Reagan, this time to promote his upcoming concert at Washington's RFK Stadium. Again, Roberts was having none of it:

"I hate to sound like one of Mr. Jackson's records, constantly repeating the same refrain, but I recommend that 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."

Ironically, it was one of Michael Jackson's other attendants - Elizabeth Taylor - who to John Roberts' dismay would win over Ronald Reagan. This time, the issue was AIDS.
In the mid-1980's, Reagan himself only magnified the growing AIDS disaster. In 1985, Reagan faced growing panic as American parents sought to remove afflicted students such as Ryan White from their childrens' schools. In preparation for a September press conference, Reagan was given talking points advising sympathy for parents and children alike and stressing that there was no danger of AIDS transmission from casual or routine contact. But Reagan had also received a memo from then White House aide and current Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts that flew in the face of scientific consensus:

"I would not like to see the President reassuring the public on this point, only to find out he was wrong later. There is much to commend the view that we should assume AIDS can be transmitted through casual or routine contact, as is true with many viruses, until it is demonstrated that it cannot be, and no scientist has said AIDS definitively cannot be so transmitted."

Instead of reassuring an anxious public and halting growing discrimination, a clearly uncomfortable Reagan told the audience:

"I'm glad I'm not faced with that problem today and I can well understand the plight of the parents and how they feel about it...And yet medicine has not come forth unequivocally and said 'This we know for a fact, that it is safe.' And until they do I think we have to do the best we can with this problem. I can understand both sides of it."

The next day, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and the chief scientists at the National Institutes of Health called a news conference to correct President Reagan's tragic error and confirm that AIDS was a blood-borne sexually transmitted disease not spread by casual contact.
Not wanting to anger his allies on the Christian right when it came to the "gay plague," Reagan remained silent on AIDS throughout most of his presidency. In what would be the first high-impact celebrity intervention among Republicans, it took a plea from Elizabeth Taylor to get Ronald Reagan to deliver a speech at the 1987 meeting of amfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
With the death of Michael Jackson, the brief intersection of the King of Pop and the future Chief Justice is a passing historical curiosity. As for the prospects for the Voting Rights Act, over which young Reagan lawyer John Roberts claimed "we were burned" and violations of which "should not be made too easy to prove," the Supreme Court this week brought conservatives closer to the day they will "beat it."


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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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