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How Obama Handled Jackson's Death

(CBS/ AP)
Though President Obama regards Michael Jackson as a "spectacular performer" and "a music icon," the White House did not issue a formal written statement on his passing.

Not every celebrity, even one as talented and widely-known as Jackson, merits a presidential tribute.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs quoted the president as saying that Jackson had "aspects of his life that were sad and tragic." It was a polite way of referring to a troubled individual with a record of strange behavior and conduct that included a criminal trial on charges of child molestation of which he was acquitted.

Since taking office, President Obama has issued formal statements of condolence for only four individuals: President Bongo of Gabon, former President Roh of South Korea, former Congressman Jack Kemp and noted historian Dr. John Hope Franklin.

Each White House sets its own criteria for such statements of condolence.

President George W. Bush issued tributes upon the deaths of many celebrities, including TV's Merv Griffin, actor Charlton Heston, artist Andrew Wyeth and "Godfather of Soul" James Brown.

So why did President Obama not issue one for Michael Jackson? "I thought I did a pretty good job," spokesman Gibbs told reporters during his daily briefing.

He hinted that Mr. Obama was ready to comment on Michael Jackson's death had he been asked about it today at the news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But no one asked, so Gibbs said he did.

"I asked the president what he thought about it today, and as his spokesman, passed that along to you," explained Gibbs.

During his life, Michael Jackson did win praise from a U.S. president. On May 14, 1984, then- President Ronald Reagan hosted a tribute to Jackson on the South Lawn of the White House.

"Well, isn't this a thriller," Reagan began the ceremony. It was the hottest ticket in town that day. So many White House staff, press and others clamored to attend the event that Reagan joked that he hadn't seen that many people in one place since leaving China.

Jackson was being honored for allowing his hit song "Beat It" to be used in a public service campaign against drunk driving.

"Michael, you've made it possible for us to warn millions of young Americans about the dangers of driving and driving," said the president.

And in a statement that may prove to be bitterly ironic, Mr. Reagan hailed Jackson for serving as "proof of what a person can accomplish through a lifestyle free of alcohol or drug abuse."

In 1977, then-President Jimmy Carter wrestled with the question of whether to issue a presidential statement on the death of Elvis Presley. The White House switchboard was reported to have been inundated with phone calls urging Mr. Carter to declare a national day of mourning for Presley.

The president eventually issued a carefully-written statement, declaring that Presley was "unique and irreplaceable" and his music "permanently changed the face of American popular culture."

Those words were sufficiently vague they could apply to Jackson as well.


(CBS)
Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/markknoller.
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