Cosmopolitics

George Washington famously disdained faction. In his
farewell address, he warned the nation against the "baneful effects of the
spirit of party." This dislike for partisanship may be the only connection
between Washington and his namesake, the magazine George. Editor John F.
Kennedy, Jr. describes
George as post-partisan, an effort to engage more people in civic life
by making politics more fun.

George, of course, has been widely ridiculed by its media peers, as "Cosmo
without the intellectual content." Boston Globe media critic
Mark Jurkowitz dubbed it "a political fanzine . . . clearly mired in an
adolescent worship of glitz and glamour." Harper's editor Lewis
Lapham referred to George as "the political magazine from which the
politics had been tactfully removed." The New Republic accused
young Kennedy of "squander[ing] the most valuable remainder of his father's
legacy," namely the elder Kennedy's belief that public figures should
display dignity, at least in public.

But the media protests too much. JFK, Jr. is hardly to blame for the lack of
dignity characteristic of today's politics. Nor is his magazine the first to
conceive of politics as gossip and entertainment. George is just the
first to explicitly embrace fun as a political creed. The slide of politics into
entertainment is nothing new, and lost in the highbrow critiques is the fact
that many of the very magazines that have attacked George are among the
prime offenders. The benchmarks of this trend include the birth of
People magazine, a print organ plainly influenced by the short attention
span of television; the finding by Time, Newsweek, and the New
York Times Magazine
, among others, that public issues are boring while
articles about people sell; and the embrace of glitz even by quality magazines
such as the New Yorker.

To pick just one example, the topic of a recent Newsweek cover was "The
Overclass." The cover blurb asked: "Is a new elite of highly paid,
high-tech strivers pulling away from the rest of America?" Good question.
But the reader seeking a discussion of the causes and consequences of our
two-class society looked in vain. Most of the feature was devoted to the "Overclass
100"--an all-too-predictable cameo snapshot of 100 notables. These included
Al Gore, George Stephanopoulos, Paul Krugman, Katie Couric, Chris Whittle, and
Robert S. McNamara. Opinion leaders, perhaps, but an Overclass?

Where could this trend possibly have begun? The trail
leads back to none other than John F. Kennedy, Sr. The emergence of television,
combined with the glamorous good looks of the youthful Kennedys, made JFK the
first celebrity-president. Jacqueline Kennedy, coming after the frumpy Mamie
Eisenhower, the homey Bess Truman, and the fiercely unfashionable Eleanor
Roosevelt, was the only glamorous first lady in living memory. The three years
of Kennedy's presidency began as the New Frontier, but are best remembered as
Camelot, a fantasy itself inspired by Hollywood.

The nation's fascination with the Kennedys was propelled by the media's
realization that Jackie Kennedy's pillbox hats made better copy than her
husband's politics. Both President Kennedy and his first lady had serious,
purposive sides to their personalities. But it is as if young John Kennedy (as
well as the press) took from each parent the glamour without the substance.
Given this legacy and his childhood in the public eye, it is not surprising that
JFK, Jr.'s impression of political life has been distorted by spotlights and
cameras. Celebrity is surely an aspect of politics; Kennedy thinks it is the
essence.

This is undoubtedly the principle on which Kennedy based his decision to create
a "lifestyle" magazine for the political world. Make politics fun and
it will "reinvigorate" the public's interest, says Kennedy in the
inaugural issue of
George. But Kennedy's error is to equate political fun with passive
entertainment. The type of passive entertainment that George provides is
similar to, well, television. We are amused and entertained, but not inspired to
do much more than sit there.

Michael Schudson's article "Voting Rites" (TAP,
Fall 1994) reminds us that politics was once both fun and an engaging civic
enterprise. He argues that we need to recapture some sense of excitement and
engagement in political activity. The social critic Neil Postman recalls
political debates in the time of Lincoln: all-day affairs where the only "entertainment"
was the intense discussion of political issues taking place on stage. Of course,
a great deal of nineteenth-century politicking entailed banal sloganeering,
corrupt vote buying, and character assassination. But at its best it included
serious oratory and substantial civic participation, and a candidate had to have
something substantive to say if he was to hold an audience's attention for
several hours.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman further argues that the visual
nature of television lends itself to style over substance, especially in the
political arena. Politics could not escape the influence of television and has
been transformed by it. In the age of sound bites and image consultants, a
seven-hour political debate would now seem interminably dull. Of course,
television has served to make politics more accessible, allowing millions of
people the opportunity to see debates and elections, but this accessibility has
come at the price of substance. "The problem is not that television
presents us with entertaining subject matter," writes Postman, "but
that all subject matter is presented as entertaining." This is precisely
the problem with
George.



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Today, problems that concern most citizens--living
standards, crime, health care--seem impervious to political remedy. It is easy
to see why voting, let alone active participation in politics, appears
pointless. Politics as celebrity offers escapism rather than participation or
solution. Despite its ambitious slogan "Not just politics as usual,"
George is just that --an intensification of the status quo.

In George's treatment of presidential candidates, we learn that Lamar
Alexander prefers Oprah to Uma, Letterman to Leno, and aisle to window, but
nothing about his social policy views. George informs us that both Bob
Dole and Phil Gramm are Cancers and that President Clinton, a Leo, was
apparently a Siberian fur trader in a past life. We aren't instructed in Newt
Gingrich's astrological background, but the Q and A with the speaker includes
this softball from interviewer John Perry Barlow: "You seem like an
extremely compassionate guy. How do you deal with the fact that you are widely
regarded not to be?" Gingrich's equally provocative response? "I don't
think I do."

Barlow's kid-glove handling of Gingrich is typical of George's attitude
toward political figures. John Kennedy's encounter with George Wallace had the
potential to be explosive, but Kennedy keeps it light: "What TV shows do
you watch?" he asks, followed by questions about Wallace's favorite books
and movies. The interview is accompanied by sidebar recollections of Wallace by
prominent public figures like Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton. Such is Kennedy's
commitment to "post-partisanship." One can imagine how he might have
interviewed Churchill or Hitler.

There is, of course, no such thing as post-partisan politics. In its essence,
politics is a battle of contending visions, a struggle for power, and hence,
inescapably partisan. George, and the whole trend of celebrity politics,
implies that politicians, like movie stars, exist to entertain. John Kennedy,
Sr. managed to project star quality, but still subordinate his celebrity to
public purposes. Richard Reeves's biography of Kennedy recounts how the
president was outraged when Time correspondent Hugh Sidey misreported
that Kennedy had posed for the cover of GQ. "In a slick symposium
of the latest men's fashions, was a specially posed photograph of President
Kennedy himself, modelling a trimly tailored dark grey suit," Sidey had
written. In fact, GQ had used a stock photo of the president. "I
never posed for any picture," Kennedy snapped at Sidey. "Anybody who
read this would think I was crazy." No longer. Today, any politician who
would reject the benefits of celebrity would be crazy. In this, the press has
been a willing accomplice. The real problem is how similar George is to
the rest of the media, not how different.



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