IT WAS Wonderful to see O.J. in handcuffs, getting hauled off to the cooler by the rough-and-tumble boys of Vegas Metro. Not so much because a lying, conniving double slash-murderer was finally behind bars again. Hardly. It was just plain thrilling to watch the Juice once again charge right to the top of the news cycle and pungently evoke, at least for me, such sweet memories of much more innocent and less fretful times.

Not to worry: This isn’t one more of those soppy, wistful meditations about some mythical moment during which America lost its innocence — at least not exactly. (Never could figure out, anyway, if that was when JFK or RFK was shot, when Vietnam went south, when Nixon resigned or when American Graffiti DVD sales topped $100 million.)

But you have to admit that the summer of 1995, when there was absolutely nothing else on TV other than O.J.’s trial and nothing else to do except obsessively follow it, was the sort of golden moment that America seems destined never to experience again.

I even built a crude cardboard shadow box so I could haul my TV out onto the patio deck and watch Court TV in the midday summer sun. My friend Tim would come visiting from Chile for days at a time, and we would plunk two deck chairs in the shallow end of the pool and, under the shade of some baseball caps, soak in the daily opera buffa. In the balmy evenings, my wife and I would open the windows and doors, and as the scent of night-blooming jasmine gently bathed us, we’d lounge on the leather couch and watch the regular trial recaps. Dan Rather live from the Balkans? Fuggedaboutit. We wanted more Dan Abrams live from Judge Ito’s courtroom.

When my wife — gasp! — had to go back to her classroom in the fall and actually start teaching as Johnnie Cochrane unreeled his fabulously hilarious closing argument, when he donned the knit watch cap (looking like a wino) and fumbled with the if-it-doesn’t-fit-you-must-acquit leather glove, I VCR’d the whole show so we could watch it together when she got home. Years later, whenever we see the file footage of the not-guilty verdict being announced, my wife and I still burst out laughing as we watch the facial expression of the now-deceased O.J. lawyer Bob Kardashian. Even he couldn’t believe what he was hearing when the words of acquittal were announced. The stunned look of surprise on his face was so intense as he stood at the defense table next to a smiling O.J. that it seemed like the Juice had goosed him under the table.

Sure, the country was just as polarized then as now. But what and who divided us? Water-cooler debates over whether Kato Kaelin was merely stupid or just insane? Whether the LAPD was insidious enough to have actually framed such an obviously guilty knife killer? Were Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden as stone incompetent as they seemed? Was Mark Fuhrman a neo-Nazi or just a tough-talking cop? And just who exactly was that O.J. neighbor with the funny Portuguese name and a yelping poodle? (Didn’t he wind up ghost writing O.J.’s botched confessional that recently got seized by the Goldman family?)

Trivial, you say? All just mental bubblegum passed out by a cynical mass media? A sinister distraction from much more important issues? Camp O.J. as a garish monument to the banal superficiality of American culture and a disappearing national attention span? Sure. To all the above charges, I plead absolutely 100 percent guilty.

Consider, however, the alternatives. This was an entire parallel universe to that which agitates us today. I’ll take Bob Shapiro and most certainly Barry Sheck any day over Paul Wolfowitz and Don Rumsfeld. Would you rather have Judge Ito over for a drink, or George W. Bush? The LAPD jumping over a Brentwood compound wall or U.S. Marines overrunning Haditha? Mark Fuhrman stomping on the rules of evidence or Alberto Gonzalez giving the nod to hoods and electrodes? A couple of goofy detectives bungling the custody chain of a couple of blood vials or watching the entire federal government allowing New Orleans to go under? Johnnie Cochrane lying like a rug or Condi Rice warning about mushroom clouds? Startled by a midnight rustling of leaves outside your window, or haunted by nightmares of Koran-clutching fanatics flying airplanes into skyscrapers? And, ultimately, rightfully but endlessly grieving over the butchering of Nicole Simpson and Ron Brown on the steps of her Bundy Drive condo or coldly shrugging off maybe as many as a million Iraqi deaths in a diabolic war without end? I’ll happily take those blackboard charts of O.J.’s murder-night timeline over the ghastly charts and graphs hauled around last week by General David H. Petraeus.

The only smudge on O.J.’s encore imprisonment this week is that it happened just as one more ghost from the past, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was once again announcing a plan for national health care. For a moment it seemed like we really had spun the clocks back a full decade. And if the price of reliving another marathon O.J. trial — tantalizing as it might be — also somehow involves resurrecting Hillary Clinton, I might have some serious second thoughts.?

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