The (future) Justice and Mr. Jackson

The (future) Justice and Mr. Jackson

Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the first album purchased by at least two of us at the Harvard Law School Library, so his unexpected death is generating a wave of nostalgia as well as an impulse (as yet unacted upon–stay tuned!) to borrow a boombox and dance in the balcony of the reference room.

This item in the New York Times about Jackson and another icon of 80s childhoods, President Reagan, was particularly interesting given its connection to current Chief Justice John Roberts.

Several times following Jackson’s collaboration on an anti-drunk driving initiative during the summer of 1984, White House correspondence aide James Coyne recommended that the President send letters commending the superstar’s achievements and wishing him well with his tour. The first letter begins cheesily and doesn’t even spell “Billie Jean” correctly:

Dear Michael:

Your visit to the White House was a real “thriller” for all of us here in the Nation’s Capital. In fact, the White House staff are still humming “Beat It” and “Billy Jean” and wondering how they’ll get tickets to one of your concerts this summer.

Roberts, then working as associate White House Counsel, would have 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. Sometimes people need to be reminded of the obvious: whatever its status as a cultural phenomenon, the Jackson concert tour is a massive commercial undertaking. The tour will do quite well financially by coming to Washington, and there is no need for the President to applaud such enlightened self-interest. 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.

Ouch! I might have to grudgingly agree with him on principle if not in spirit, though I can’t help wondering if Roberts was simply a frustrated Bruce Springsteen fan–as he noted in his third memo arguing against this potential bad precedent, there were no such letters being drafted to congratulate the Boss on his Born in the U.S.A. tour!

For more on Jackson’s lesser known legal connections, check out ZiefBrief’s post about his patented shoe design.

About: Meg Kribble

Research Librarian & Outreach Coordinator at the HLS Library.
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