Politics still sells ... just add movie stars

Then george magazine hit the newsstands with a midriff-baring Cindy Crawford dressed as George Washington on the cover, Washington cognoscenti predicted John F. Kennedy Jr.'s foray into political publishing would have a very short shelf life.

But almost five years later, the staff at George is on top. With a circulation estimated at 400,000 readers, it's now the largest-selling political magazine in the US. Traditional Washington periodicals are mimicking parts of its design, and the savvier of the capital's powerbrokers are regularly showing up in its opinion columns and editorial board room in New York.

"What George magazine has done is to attract some people in America who otherwise find other strictly dry political tomes too boring and would never read them," said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, at a recent editorial board meeting.

What George has done is to recognize that the celebrity and politics have become inextricably linked, and the magazine exploits the nexus between the two in a straightforward, nonpartisan and totally unapologetic way. In doing so, it's tapped a vein of American readers that much of the Washington elite long ago wrote off.

"The mission of George is to be both informative and entertaining and to cover American politics in its cultural fullness - not simply as something that happens in Washington or in elections every two or four years," says Richard Blow, the new executive editor.

But to its critics George is nothing more than superficial glitz, trading on its publisher John F. Kennedy Jr.'s own fame, and substituting gossipy profiles and celebrity covers for serious political debate. No. 3 on George's list of the most fascinating women in politics: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The magazine's unabashed stance as "post-partisan" also rankles many in Washington. Mr. Blow defines it as encompassing the notion of nonpartisan, but being broader - suggesting the fading relevance of party affiliation and loyalty among the public generally.

Many in Washington dismiss that, noting this is probably one of the most bitterly partisan periods on Capitol Hill in recent US history.

"I'm a little depressed that the biggest political magazine in the country is one that aggressively doesn't care about ideas," says Charles Lane, editor of The New Republic (TNR).

But TNR has been struggling with stagnant circulation and ad sales. It's just been thoroughly redesigned, with bolder print and more accessible graphics. But Mr. Lane insists George's success did not influence the design and it will not change its essential content.

"It's been a long time since I've heard someone say 'Hey, did you read that in George,' " says Lane.

But Mr. Kennedy and the other editors point to TNR's redesign as a quiet victory, an acknowledgment of their notion that it's Washington that has to change.

Making politics fun to read

They're also offended by the suggestion that they don't care about political ideas. Indeed, their whole purpose, they contend, is to translate them in a way that's more palatable and digestible.

"Ultimately people come to George for what they learn about politics and public issues," says Kennedy. "That [celebrity] stuff is too often used as the shorthand definition of the magazine."

For instance, the choice of Sarah Michelle Gellar (who plays Buffy) as a top political influence was not made because she has a critically acclaimed TV show. She was chosen because she "represents real girl power" and appeared on the scene "just as psychologists were reporting that during adolescence many girls mutate from self-confident, assertive little brats into self-hating anorexic little women."

Some missteps

Both Kennedy and Blow admit the magazine has stumbled at times, particularly in the beginning, publishing things for which they were "rightfully criticized" - such as Julia Roberts's hug-filled trip to Haiti in 1995.

"I think there had been times in the past when we were simply so pleased to see a moment of politics and celebrity converging that we stopped there, rather than looking at it more skeptically," says Blow.

But George, both insist, has grown up, getting a more sure footing. For instance, when Jesse Ventura suddenly body- slammed Minnesota's political establishment last November, most of the major media did "gee whiz, isn't this kind of cute" stories. George did a piece on Mr. Ventura's rocky record as mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minn.

But critics contend that George's overall focus on personalities runs the risk of simplifying, and even distorting important social issues. "There's always the risk that the emotional aspects of the story will carry it," says Northwestern University's Irving Rein. "But the fact that it's associated with a celebrity doesn't mean that the broad-based social issues can't also be discussed."

A country powered by celebrity

And as American culture has grown more celebrity oriented, Professor Rein and others like social critic Neal Gabler believe it's the audience that is driving that shift in communication styles.

"Life itself has become an entertainment medium and one of the manifestations of that is that virtually every institution of American life is now driven by entertainment values," says Mr. Gabler, author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality." "George is definitely onto something."

It's also in the rather ironic position of trying to break free of its own celebrity identity with Kennedy, one of the key ingredients that first helped catapult it onto the newsstands.

"If its only appeal is as an appendage of me then won't be able to be viable on its own," says Kennedy. "And people now say George magazine, they don't say John Kennedy's George magazine. That's one of the small victories."

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