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The road to Neverland


DURING the brief vogue for the movie "Indecent Proposal" last year, couples nationwide argued about whether it was right for a woman to sleep with Robert Redford in exchange for a million bucks.

My wife and I never resolved this issue -- we wouldn't mind a house in the country, actually -- but since the offer wasn't on our table, we pressed on.

Yet until the nasty whispers started spreading, few debated the wisdom of real-life parents who turned over their children to Michael Jackson in exchange for shopping sprees at Toys "R" Us, special Disneyland tours and overnights at Neverland Ranch, a sort of Playboy Mansion for tots.

Mr. Jackson, by far a bigger star than Robert Redford, couldn't possibly be up to no good.

Star worship is the real story in the Jackson case. Americans of all stations are infatuated with the rich and famous, and the most rabid fans will surrender almost anything -- from their money to their dignity, principles and children -- to brush vicariously against their idols.

The weirder Mr. Jackson's public persona, the more famous he became and the larger the rewards he received.

As a young pop performer who looked like any other wholesome child star, he was merely another show-biz celebrity. As a man in his 30s with a crotch-clutching MTV pose, a cosmetically rearranged face, unnaturally chalky skin and a personality so androgynous that even Ru Paul might find it a bit much, he was our Sun King.

From the president on down, few could resist sharing his spotlight. Only a year ago Mr. Clinton beamed into the television cameras at an inaugural gala with Michael on one side and his daughter, Chelsea, on the other. It was also a year ago that Mr. Jackson was given center stage at an American institution even more popular than the presidency, the Super Bowl, where he cavorted for 91 million viewers at halftime.

Michael Jackson is a talented performer, but it's hard to imagine that either Bill Clinton or a typical football fan sits around listening to "Dangerous." The reflected glory of fame, even when reflected on the already celebrated, is the drawing card, and no one seems immune to it.

After Mr. Jackson was embroiled in scandal, he spent New Year's hanging around with Michael Milken, the star felon of the 1980s, at the Treasure Island resort in Las Vegas; the fallen junk bond prince, looking as always for public-relations redemption, had allied himself with Mr. Jackson to create an educational cable network for the nation's kids.

A week later, and less than three weeks before Mr. Jackson bought his way out of the civil case, the NAACP Image Awards gave him a prestigious platform from which to declare his innocence.

Once Mr. Jackson settled out of court and threw his innocence into question, his fame reached new heights. Instead of just sharing the spotlight with the president, he up staged him.

As startled news junkies discovered the other night, "Nightline" bumped the State of the Union for a dissection of the Jackson case.

An apologetic Ted Koppel, not previously known as a devotee of pop culture, explained: "After you strip away the sleaze, there are still a couple of issues worth talking about."

Maybe. But those issues, legal and psychological, are secondary to the apparently irresistible pull of Mr. Jackson's fame. Watching his story unfold, I couldn't help but think of John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation," in which wealthy Manhattanites are so enamored of celebrity that they turn over their homes to a con man who purports to be Sidney Poitier's son and promises them roles in a movie of "Cats."

Now that the 14-year-old son of a "Beverly Hills dentist and part-time screenwriter" has hit a jackpot large enough to finance his own "Cats" after allegedly sharing a bed with Michael Jackson, Mr. Guare's satire seems tame.

As Susan Estrich, a USC law professor, put it in one of the countless discussions I guiltily devoured on CNN, the Jackson ,, story "leaves everyone wanting to take a shower, quite frankly."

But what leaves everyone feeling soiled may not be just the ambiguous relationship between Michael Jackson and his young playmate but the unambiguously titillating relationship between this fallen star and ourselves.

Frank Rich is a columnist for the New York Times.

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