Mourning Sickness

Fred Goldman’s ghoulish celebrity.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journal contains this intriguing entry for March 29, 1832: “I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin.”

Emerson was in his late 20s at the time, a Boston minister still reeling from the loss of his young wife, who had died of tuberculosis 14 months earlier. Biographer Robert D. Richardson Jr. contends that by literally confronting death (ghoulish as it seems), Emerson was able to pull out of his funk and get back to the business of becoming a great American philosopher.

It is inherently unfair to pass judgment on another’s grief. Yet I must confess that, just as Emerson’s behavior raised my eyebrows, so, too, of late has Fred Goldman’s. Where once I saw a man struggling rather nobly with tragedy, I now see someone trapped on the merry-go-round of notoriety. Three years after the double murder of the century, a part of me is weary of the Ron Goldman lapel button, of the habitual references to “the killer,” of the righteous indignation. More to the point, a part of me is wary of Fred Goldman–a client of a large Los Angeles public-relations firm and a paid ($100,000 a year) spokesman for the Safe Streets Coalition, a victims’ rights group–turning a private ordeal into public policy. Goldman now promotes the abolition of unanimous-jury verdicts, the adoption of “judicial report cards,” and an end to the lifetime appointment of federal judges. “Being active is a way to focus some of that frustration, anger, etc., into something positive,” says Goldman.

Last February, Fred Goldman and his second wife, Patti, were in Washington for their 10th wedding anniversary. They spent the day first promoting the family’s book, His Name Is Ron, in an appearance at the National Press Club, and then touring the Holocaust Museum. “There’s something like an Old Testament prophet quality about [Fred],” says a court reporter who covered both Simpson trials.

Indeed, the Goldmans’ rabbi told the Washington Post that Fred has become a “moral force” for justice. “God is working through him right now,” says Rabbi Gary E. Johnson.

G od sometimes works in mysterious ways. So do the media. Thus the Goldmans and daughter Kim were back in Washington in April for the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, a black-tie schmoozathon for journalists, politicians, and Hollywood stars. Vanity Fair writer Christopher Hitchens notes that “it seemed rather creepy” to see Fred Goldman in the Hilton hotel ballroom along with such mainstream trophy guests as Tom Selleck and Ellen DeGeneres. How do you make small talk about bloody gloves and size 12 Bruno Magli shoes?

The Goldmans were invited by People magazine, whose editors graciously passed along to White House aides the family’s desire to meet President Clinton. During dinner, however, Fred decided to take matters into his own hands, and marched up to the head table.

The Secret Service intercepted him, but a backstage meeting was arranged. The Goldmans later complained about getting only five minutes alone with the Clintons.

The Goldmans didn’t have tickets to Vanity Fair’s heavily guarded post-dinner VIP party, but they gate-crashed without a problem. “They assumed they’d get in based on this macabre celebrity,” says a journalist who was there. “And they were right.”

Considering all the misery the Goldmans have been through, one can’t begrudge them a night on the town and a little stargazing. What is cause for some concern, though, is the peculiar public pedestal upon which they’ve been placed, especially since Fred now is venturing into the arena of criminal-justice reform. Goldman’s voice is part of a rising chorus of high-profile victims’ rights advocates. The assemblage includes Marc Klaas, whose daughter Polly was kidnapped and murdered; John Walsh, of America’s Most Wanted fame, the father of another kidnap victim; and New York Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, who launched a political career after her husband was killed by a crazed gunman on a Long Island commuter train. Those voices deserve to be heard, but the risk is that the national crime debate will be shrouded in the emotional fog they produce.

If there is life after death, Fred Goldman will probably chase O.J. Simpson through the tunnels of time. Perhaps rightfully so. “Forgiving the person who murdered my son is not something I’m able to do,” he said shortly before the civil trial commenced. “I think there’s something between vengeance and forgiveness.”

There is. It’s called peace of mind. I hope Fred Goldman finds it. But he’s looking in the wrong places.