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Jackson Goes to Washington

There he was, in a most improbable place, wearing a red satin shirt with brocade and blue sergeant stripes. He waved to fans. He flashed a "V" sign. He signed autographs.


On April 1, 2004, Michael Jackson was in the House — the House of Representatives. For all the trips I had made to Capitol Hill as a Washington correspondent for The New York Times, I had never seen anything so incongruous.


The people doing the people’s work were doing nothing of the kind. They crowded the hallways, squealing like teenagers, craning for a glimpse of the Pop Icon who was joining a few members of Congress and officials from a dozen African nations to call greater attention to HIV/AIDS in their countries.


Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, was his host for the hour-long meeting, and by the end, a massive crowd had formed outside of her office, where a news conference was scheduled. Congressional staffers, cops and ordinary citizens who had just happened by, watched in thrall as Jackson walked out, stood beside Lee and held her hand. I stood no more than 10 feet away as teeney-bopper screams filled the air — "Michael! "MICHAEL! Over, here, Michael!" — and camera flashes lit the walls.


In her introductory remarks, Lee said, "Mr. Jackson’s voice will be able to be utilized in this campaign of awareness." And I thought, well, that’s nice. But Michael never said a word. He smiled. He vamped for cameras. He nodded in agreement with what others were saying. Someone slipped him a small flag of Israel, and he waved it.


We all waited for him to step to the microphones. But he didn’t. He never spoke.


It was odd, I thought, one of the world’s most recognizable figures, lending his name to a serious issue. But that’s all he lent. Maybe it was because he was awaiting the start of his child molestation trial in Santa Barbara, and somehow his words might be used against him. A press release said he would tour Africa on behalf of the campaign if his legal situation permitted.


The trial came and went, and no tour ever materialized. I always wondered, if his appearance that day made any difference – to anyone beyond the Congressional staffers screaming his name.


Michael Janofsky is a veteran journalist who spent 24 years at The New York Times, where he was a Washington and national correspondent .Now an L.A.-based writer, he remains a big fan of politics, movies and his hometown Baltimore Orioles.