In his Twitter videos, O. J. Simpson’s all-American bonhomie is perhaps just as dark as the veiled threats that follow it.
Some things feel so inevitable, so apropos of a particular moment, that when they happen one can only stand back and marvel at the on-the-nose-ness of it all. Or so it struck me in mid-June, when, scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across a retweet of the very first, just-posted contribution to the platform from the one-time football legend, Hollywood personality, and accused double-murderer O. J. Simpson. (Simpson was acquitted of the stabbing of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, in 1995. He was found liable for the murders in a civil court the following year, and, as my colleague Jeffrey Toobin has noted, is widely believed to have committed them.) In the brief video attached to the tweet (which reads, jauntily, “Coming soon!!!”), Simpson, who is just shy of seventy-two, appears to be recording himself, a bit shakily, on a hand-held cell-phone camera. “Hey, Twitter world, this is yours truly!” he says, smiling brightly.
Until not long ago, Simpson’s ability to use Twitter and the Internet more generally was hindered by his nine-year incarceration, stemming from armed-robbery charges. (He was released from a Nevada prison, on parole, in October, 2017.) But now that he was here, tweeting, his presence made almost too much sense, in that particular “Isn’t this just crazy? Yes, but, then again, it’s 2019” way.
Twitter, after all, is the site on which a washed-up but attention-thirsty businessman and reality-TV star found enough traction for his hateful, often spurious rants to help propel himself to the Presidency—a station from which he has since continued to tweet falsities and vulgarities at his whim. If Trump could bombard the platform with the pure barrage of his personality, his truth, with no regard to facts or decency, then why the hell not Simpson? Here was a man whose sensational murder trial was a significant harbinger of our era, in which hard news has merged seamlessly with entertainment, and lived experience has become an ongoing reality show. In such a world, truth matters much less than theatrics, and as long as one has what we now might call a “brand”—no matter the multitude of sins this brand may hide—one deserves to command respect in the public eye.
Although twenty-five years have passed since the murders, it seems that Simpson’s notoriety and recognizability have held—perhaps thanks to the two brilliant television shows, one documentary and one dramatized, that aired about him in 2016—making him an enticing-enough follow in the “Twilight Zone”-ish social environment of Twitter. Within two weeks on the platform, after tweeting a mere dozen times, he amassed nearly eight hundred and fifty thousand followers.
In his first posted video, Simpson is seen in what appears to be the backyard of his private home in a Las Vegas gated community. Palm trees and bougainvillea abound, and the former N.F.L. star is dressed casually but conservatively, in a white button-down and a blue zip-up sweater. With his still-handsome looks and athletic build, he has something of the aspect of a successful, robust pensioner, enjoying every moment of his well-earned retirement. “Coming soon to Twitter, you’ll get to read all my thoughts and opinions on just about everything,” he promises, his tone sonorous and reassuring, before advising his followers, in a fatherly manner, not to fall for any fake O. J. Twitter accounts. “This should be a lot of fun,” he continues, virtually chuckling, before taking a tonal shift: “I got a little bit of getting even to do,” he says oddly, suddenly, though the grin remains, and only grows broader as he finishes up with a folksy leave-taking: “So God bless, and take care.”
I would argue that this creepy shift from hearty dad to avenging alleged-killer and back in a blink of an eye is akin to a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde switcharoo, but that would presuppose a true separation of one emotional state from the other, the good from the bad. The remarkable things about these videos, though, is how these states are, for Simpson, one and the same: the faux-good-natured all-American bonhomie perhaps just as dark as the barely veiled threat that follows it. This doubleness also haunts Simpson’s other tweets, most of which are accompanied by videos whose ambiance continues to land somewhere between that of an amateur YouTuber reviewing different brands of windshield wipers and an aspiring school-shooter recording his social and ideological grievances. In one clip, in which Simpson is seen standing by a pool flanked by two American flags (“Hey, Twitter world!”) he vows that people will no longer be able to “say whatever they want to say about me, with no accountability,” before suggesting that he will now be able to “challenge a lot of that B.S. and set the record straight.” He continues to give a preview of his Twitter feed’s coming attractions, saying that he will discuss “sports and fantasy football, even politics,” and finishes by wishing “all my fellow fathers out there, happy Father’s Day, and God bless.” Later, in an outing recorded prior to the second night of the Democratic Debates, in what appears to be a fast-casual sushi restaurant, Simpson, in a busily patterned short-sleeved button-down, with an Apple Watch gleaming on his wrist, urges his followers not to listen to the pundits’ opinions about who won the debate. “With your vote, you’re the expert!” he wholesomely advises. “Enjoy! Take care!”
In an especially audacious video, posted on the tenth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death (the attached tweet reads “Rest in Peace Michael”), Simpson is seen on a golf cart wearing a white visor and a blue polo. He and Jackson, he explains, worked together to establish “Camp Good Times, a camp for kids with cancer.” (It is at this point that he casually pulls out a framed commemorative photo, which, one is led to assume, he carries around with him when golfing.) Later, Simpson continues, Jackson told him to “take kids up to Neverland Ranch, and I did, and it was wondrous.” That this video comes mere months after the airing of the upsetting documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which brought forth detailed accounts from victims of Jackson’s alleged child sexual abuse, renders it both horrifying and darkly comedic.
In his Twitter bio, Simpson announces, “If you don’t see it here, I didn’t say it.” Finally, he suggests, it is through these videos and tweets that we will learn who the true O. J. really is, and the lies and the false stories will be dispelled. This is not the first time, however, that he has claimed to give us this kind of coveted glimpse behind the glove. While awaiting trial, in 1995, he published “I Want to Tell You: My Response to your Letters, Your Messages, Your Questions,” in which he vociferously declared his innocence and, as the jacket copy tells us, allowed us to see “the real O. J. Simpson, the human side of the athlete and public figure who was an American icon long before the events of last June brought him under the scrutiny of the public eye”; and in 2006, he pivoted to flirting with another kind of truth in the fully nuts “If I Did It,” in which he gave a hypothetical account of how he would have murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
In his Michael Jackson tribute video, Simpson, who appears to at least dimly expect some blowback, cautions that he “didn’t know enough about Michael’s private life,” to “debate anybody” about it, before assuring us, “I do know that he was a kind and generous soul.” That same hands-off attitude seems to animate Simpson and his Twitter feed. Whatever a kind, generous guy does privately—celebrating Father’s Day by his pool, playing golf at his club, allegedly stabbing his wife and her friend to death—is simply his own personal business. Until then, take care!