George

In his own image

Magazine gave wry take on politics

July 19, 1999|By Susan Reimer and Linell Smith | Susan Reimer and Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

George magazine was designed to serve up politics to a reluctant readership -- women and young people -- using a heaping spoonful of celebrity journalism to help it go down easier.

Who better to do that than John F. Kennedy Jr?

Young, rugged and handsome, bred for politics, infinitely well-connected in Washington, New York and Hollywood and, ironically, a mainstay of celebrity journalism himself, Kennedy launched his pop culture take on politics four years ago to the eye-rolling derision of the 50-year-old white men inside the Washington beltway who considered politics their private franchise.

He put Cindy Crawford, dressed as George Washington, on his premiere cover. He asked Madonna what she would do if she were president and he added the subtitle, "not politics as usual."

The pundits said George was a lightweight, that it didn't matter, that it didn't make news or the cocktail circuit, that it wasn't required reading among those in the game. But more than 400,000 readers who like their politics light bought it every month, casting a circulation shadow over more serious publications like the New Republic, the National Review and the Nation.

"No one likes to have their hard work dismissed," Kennedy said in a March interview with Steven Brill of Brill's Content magazine, a journalism watchdog publication. "But I don't lose sleep over that. [We] are the largest political magazine in the country now, which is, after three years, an achievement."

But as with Harold Ross and the New Yorker, Henry Luce and Time and Life, Clay Felker and New York, and Helen Gurley Brown and Cosmopolitan, a magazine's success owes much to the power of its editor's vision. With the presumed death of Kennedy in a plane crash off Martha's Vineyard, the future of George is clouded.

It's future was already uncertain. In the weeks before his disappearance, Kennedy was in serious talks about the future of George with Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, which invested $20 million in the publication's start-up.

An executive at Goldman, Sachs & Co., the New York Times reports, said in recent weeks, Kennedy was interested in finding a financial partner and had come up with a list of companies he was interested in approaching.

Kennedy believed strongly in his vision of a lifestyle magazine grounded in politics. Kennedy talked of George celebrating the game of politics the way Sports Illustrated celebrates sports. He called politics "the greatest show on earth."

Though he often faltered -- Demi Moore speaking about sexual politics was a failure he admitted -- he knew his subject -- politics and the cult of personality -- from both sides. And he was determined to see George survive the common financial difficulties of a new publication.

"We're like the Conan O'Brien of magazines," he said once, referring to the unlikely late-night TV host picked to succeed David Letterman at NBC. "We're still here."

Launched in the fall of 1995, the magazine's peak circulation has been about 420,000; Kennedy has said it needs a circulation of at least 600,000 to survive.

Paid subscriptions reportedly had dropped about 5 percent since the second half of 1998, but newsstand sales were down an alarming 28 percent. Just as important, ad sales were slipping sharply, according to industry reports, and the number of pages in each monthly issue had failed to grow.

"I've never heard anyone talk about a George piece," Michael Kelly, editor of National Journal, told Brill's Content in March. "It's pretty consciously not serious. It's not intended for people who actually know anything about politics or Washington."

Kennedy believed George only needed time to become the commercially successful political magazine he envisioned. He found politics invigorating and entertaining and fascinating to watch, and he wanted to demonstrate that to the uninitiated. He wanted color photographs and glamorous visuals. He wanted something, he said, between a fashion magazine and Entertainment Weekly.

"I have a perspective on politics that I would say is unique," Kennedy told Brill's Content. "And one [that] I created a magazine around."

David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, said yesterday that George was a reflection of Kennedy's "complicated and ambivalent relation to late 20th century celebrity.

"I thought it was a fascinating magazine because of its founder," Remnick said from his home in New York. "Unlike the New Republic or the Nation or the Weekly Standard, George fully embraced the idea of personality and even entertainment being a major if not dominant component of politics.

"I wouldn't have wanted to depend on George for a full diet of political reporting and opinion," said Remnick. "But it had the capacity to be very entertaining and smart and funny."

"It was a magazine that I resisted in the beginning and then all of a sudden they started sending me free copies," said Dominick Dunne, author and writer for Vanity Fair, speaking by phone from his summer home in Connecticut.

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