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Jewish World Review July 26, 1999 /13 Av, 5759

Daniel and Ben Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Kennedy and his magazine were pro-politics -- IN THE SUMMER OF 1995, Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans seemed to have wrested (for what seemed like the foreseeable future) the political initiative from a Clinton White House weakened by scandal, the collapse of Hillarycare and a general leftish tilt that seemed to belie the centrist presidency promised in the Clinton campaign of 1992.

As John Kennedy and his editors prepared to launch their mass-market glossy about politics in a political environment suddenly dominated by the right, they hired me (fresh off a stint at the conservative American Spectator) as a kind of part-time Sherpa to help them navigate the unfamiliar world of Washington's newly ascendant conservative elite.

New York glossies had not typically been very balanced, or even knowing, in their coverage of conservatives. John and his editors consciously tried to redress that imbalance in the pages of George.

He personally interviewed conservatives like Ralph Reed, Dan Quayle and philanthropist Richard Scaife. I would bet that each would say that both John's questions and the editing of the interviews were fair. He published a George "Rant" by Steve Forbes arguing for a return to the gold standard. And he put both Newt Gingrich (posing with cuddly lion cubs, no less) and Ronald Reagan on George covers, when models and matinee idols were more typical of its cover choices.

It was no small irony that it fell to the heir to the Kennedy dynasty and object of such large progressive political hopes to create an ideologically balanced New York glossy. But he did, and I think it earned John much respect and goodwill across partisan lines.

John's interviews were untendentious. His own point of view was well-hidden.

In fact, critics suspected he was a political naif who had no point of view.

The critics were wrong about that. He simply wanted his inherently interesting interviewees to have their say with as little journalistic mediation as possible. As a result, some of the Kennedy Q and A's, like his George Wallace interview, contain historically valuable information. And of course, if he had exposed more of his own politics in his interviews, he would have been criticized for running a vanity publication.

George was a good idea for a magazine --- and a bold one. It was not pro-liberal or pro-conservative. It was pro-politics. Its only ideology was that campaigning was cool and public service worthwhile. In an era of political cynicism, George tried to convey its editor's no-apologies passion and enthusiasm for politics as a vocation to a broad, unspecialized readership. Critics argued that in divesting politics of its ideological stakes, George aestheticized (and trivialized) an inescapably serious pursuit. Maybe.

But what are the alternatives? If George sometimes reduced politics to performance, mainstream political coverage often reduces it to sport, often for a similar reason -- to avoid tipping an ideological hand.

The smart money in the New York-magazine world held that there wasn't enough interest to sustain a profitable mass-market magazine about politics.

Kennedy bet that by blending visual style and sex appeal and humor and celebrities in with serious political coverage, he could make one fly. Ad sales had begun to fall off, and there were reports that George's backers at Hachette-Filipacchi were growing impatient. But if Kennedy had not decisively proved the skeptics wrong, he was sure making a strong case for his original vision. George had a circulation of about 400,000, making it the country's largest-circulation political magazine. And after four years, George was still surviving in a brutally crowded and competitive marketplace. Kennedy showed no signs of giving up on it.

John-John, publisher
It is hard to see how such an anomalous magazine could have been successfully launched without John Kennedy's uniquely marketable mystique behind it. But then, if John had found something to do that he could do better than anyone else, he was a lucky man.

I had no special access to John's personal political views. But I always harbored a fugitive hunch that he was a click or two to the right of his uncle and cousins --- more of a centrist, John Kennedy Democrat than a liberal, Teddy Kennedy Democrat. His father, remember, was a Cold Warrior and a tax-cutter. We chatted once about conservative supply-siders' superficially incongruous lionization of his father's famous tax cut of 1962. He found it ironic, but not insane (and knew the exact rates involved). At a press conference, he said if he were president he would cut taxes.

Not that John was a Republican, or anything like it. But he would have made a good one had he wanted to be: He was zestfully entrepreneurial, he energetically championed innovative private-sector solutions to social problems, and, of course, he was in the right tax bracket. I bet Arnold would have appreciated having some company.

There are few things sadder than human possibilities unrealized, and few people who seemed to embody possibilities more vast than John Kennedy, Jr.

It is so sad that he has gone so soon.

JWR contributor Daniel Wattenberg, who wrote this week's column, is a contributing editor for and George. Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate