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.
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.