Young Roberts To King of Pop: Request Denied

Michael Jackson waves to supporters in June. Two decades earlier, John G. Roberts Jr. repeatedly urged his White House bosses not to issue a presidential letter praising the singer.
Michael Jackson waves to supporters in June. Two decades earlier, John G. Roberts Jr. repeatedly urged his White House bosses not to issue a presidential letter praising the singer. (By Gene Blevins -- Reuters)

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr.'s legal philosophy may be shrouded in ambiguity, but when it comes to the King of Pop, Roberts shows no judicial restraint whatsoever.

Tucked in the thousands of pages of documents released yesterday from Roberts's time in the Reagan White House is a collection of memos by the young lawyer about efforts by Michael Jackson's publicists to get presidential flattery for the Gloved One. Without exception, future judge Roberts voted to overturn.

"The office of presidential correspondence is not yet an adjunct of Michael Jackson's PR firm," Roberts wrote in a memo to his boss on June 22, 1984, opposing a request by the singer's publicist for a presidential letter praising the star's work against drunken driving.

In opposing the wishes of Jackson, Roberts acknowledged that he was a voice in the wilderness -- but being a future Supreme Court nominee, he used the Latin. "I recognize that I am something of a vox clamans in terris in this area," he wrote, "but enough is enough."

It was two decades before Jackson's celebrated legal troubles, but the prescient Roberts wanted to be startin' somethin'. A separate memo denying the request, drafted by Roberts for Fred F. Fielding, the White House counsel, says: "I see no need to have the president send a letter to Mr. Jackson, simply because Mr. Jackson's public relations firm has requested one."

That was Roberts's rap, and Jackson couldn't beat it. Three months later, Jackson's personal manager made a new request, this one for a letter from Ronald Reagan to Jackson thanking the singer for performing in Washington and for providing 400 tickets for "needy youngsters."

The request came to the attention of Roberts, who wrote on Sept. 21 to Fielding: "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."

The memo Roberts drafted for Fielding denying the request went further. "The visit of the tour to Washington was not an eleemosynary gesture," Robert wrote, using a fancy word for "charitable." "It was a calculated commercial decision that does not warrant gratitude from our nation's chief executive." Besides, he wrote, Bruce Springsteen got no presidential letter after his tour.

Even back then, young Roberts was thinking about precedent. "In today's Post there were already reports that some youngsters were turning away from Mr. Jackson in favor of a newcomer who goes by the name 'Prince,' and is apparently planning a Washington concert," he wrote to Fielding. "Will he receive a presidential letter?"

-- Dana Milbank


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