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Is John Kennedy Jr.'s 'George' making American politics sexy?

Or Is the Magazine Just Dumbing It Down More? (No Giggling Please) Hmmm. Sounds Like a Good Article for 'George.'

August 11, 1996|NINA J. EASTON | Nina J. Easton is a staff writer for the magazine. Her last article was a futuristic look at the American social welfare sector. Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to the research for this story

Black and white flashback to 1963. With the first lady en route to Greece, President John F. Kennedy seizes the opportunity to invite a Look magazine photographer into the White House to capture his son in action. CLICK. Two-year-old John-John peeking out from under his daddy's desk in the Oval Office. CLICK. CLICK. John-John making silly faces as he squirms in the presidential chair. Jackie would hit the ceiling if she knew what was going on, the president confessed to the editors. * JFK not only understood the public's fascination with his handsome young family, he also was determined to exploit it, says biographer Richard Reeves, who recounts the Look photo session in his book, "President Kennedy: Profile of Power." JFK-the-politician seemed able to hear the cocking of a camera at 100 yards, says Reeves. JFK-the-president would spend hours studying photos of himself before deciding which ones should be released. "He originated the glamorization of the family and children that other presidents had resisted."

Spin the clock forward. Analog to digital. Rotary dial to cellular grid. "American Bandstand" to MTV. In the three decades that pass, fame becomes the currency of success. Fame legitimizes. Being conspicuous gets confused with being illustrious. It happens even in the dry, gritty world of politics and public policy, where a willfully uninformed TV talk-show host like Larry King becomes a must-stop for presidential candidates, and MTV offers a forum for the leader of the free world to disclose his preference for briefs over boxer shorts.

All of which opens up a neat career opportunity for the premier offspring of America's celebrity culture, John Kennedy Jr. For the past year, Kennedy has produced a glossy political magazine whimsically named George after the Founding Father. New York-based George is the realization of the 35-year-old Kennedy's vision to formally marry politics to celebrity, to dollop the gray world of public service with a heavy helping of glam and glitz, to appeal to that same mass thirst that Camelot once quenched.

George turns 1 next month, drumming up enough business from advertisers to support a move from six to 12 issues a year. The verdict within the political-media elite that Kennedy's father so artfully conquered and manipulated ranges from yawns to ridicule, with only a sprinkling of applause. Even among Washington's young and hip, enthusiasm is markedly thin. An informal survey elicited responses spanning from, on the right,

Lawyer/activist Laura Ingraham--"Don't read it. I've seen it a couple times"--to, on the left, White House deputy for intergovernmental affairs John Emerson--"Do I read George? I skim George."

But it's impossible to ignore George's commercial strength and reach. With combined subscription and newsstand sales that reach toward the half-million mark, Kenndy's magazine dwarfs tonier publications such as the New Republic (at 100,000) or its new conservative counterpart, the Weekly Standard (at 60,000).

Part of the dismissal of George--one pundit snidely called it a "net loss of information"--stems from Kennedy's unquestioning embrace of the celebrity culture. His father viewed Hollywood as a playground, a fantasy-retreat from the serious business of governance--both he and Robert Kennedy assiduously avoided being photographed with stars. (Reeves recalls landing at Los Angeles International Airport in 1966 with Bobby Kennedy, who spotted actor/activist Robert Vaughn waiting for him. Kennedy promptly ordered his advance team to shoulder the Man from U.N.C.L.E. out of the camera's view.) Neither Kennedy would consider publicly soliciting a star's views on public policy.

Not so for John Junior. Borrowing from cultural magazines like Vanity Fair and Esquire, he gussies up George's profiles of political operatives, activists and lawmakers with cover shots of Cindy Crawford's navel and Demi Moore's painted breasts. Then he goes on to give celebrities a forum for the more serious stuff. In the regular feature "If I Were President," which is being leveraged into a "Dateline NBC" segment, we learn that Madonna is sure she'd never want to be president (she'd rather fight the good fight "as an artist") and that Gloria Estefan doesn't want the job either ("No matter what you do, someone will be against it"). With those kinds of insights, you can almost hear the collective chortles of disdain for George from across the Potomac.

Senior presidential advisor George Stephanopoulos, whose personal experience with the celebrity culture includes tabloids fixated on his love life and an "appearance" as the unseen object of lust in an NBC "Friends" episode, mostly considers George harmless entertainment that holds the potential to broaden the political audience. "You evangelize where the souls are," he says. "If you can get people to pay attention through one avenue, maybe they will pay attention to others."

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