When John F. Kennedy Jr. introduced George magazine in 1995, he was derided for his insistence on covering politics as lifestyle. The first issue featured Cindy Crawford on the cover, dressed as George Washington -- if Washington had ever worn a midriff-revealing top.
A decade and a half later, George is long gone, but the confluence that Kennedy imagined is very much entrenched. Presidential candidates routinely appear on ABC’s “The View” or “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” sharing not their policies but their narratives. TMZ.com is developing a Washington bureau; the National Enquirer broke the story of John Edwards’ affair with Rielle Hunter, a story no mainstream media outlet would touch.
This is politics as lifestyle in its most salacious form, and its roots go back before George, to the 1987 tabloid photograph of Gary Hart, sitting on the deck of the Monkey Business with Donna Rice in his lap. You have to wonder if that picture gave Kennedy the idea for his magazine, or at least the awareness that our relationship to politics had fundamentally shifted, that we had become more interested in titillation than in ideas.
The difference is that in the 1980s and even the 1990s, it was the media dishing dirt on politicians; now the dirt comes from all sides. The last few months alone have seen the publication of several books -- Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue,” John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s “Game Change,” Andrew Young’s “The Politician” and Jenny Sanford’s “Staying True” -- in which sleaze and payback come to the fore.
What’s interesting about these works is that they are all by (putatively) serious people: a vice presidential nominee, two national political reporters, a key aide to a presidential candidate, the first lady of a state. And yet their insights, such as they are, come off like the witless name-calling of a schoolyard fight. Gossip, innuendo, infidelity, accusations -- that’s the best this group of exemplary citizens can stir up.
If you’re looking for a signature moment, here’s Young in “The Politician,” breathlessly recounting his discovery of a videotape of Edwards and Hunter having sex. “I couldn’t resist,” he writes. “With scissors, a pen, and some scotch tape, I fixed the cassette.” Then he and his wife watch. “We debated turning it off,” Young continues, “but neither of us could actually press the button. It was like watching a traffic pileup occur in slow motion -- it was repelling but also transfixing.”
A traffic pileup in slow motion: That’s the perfect description of this new generation of political tell-alls, none of which can see the forest for the trees. We live in a society beset by real problems -- healthcare, the financial crisis, the utter collapse of mature debate or discussion on either side of the aisle. Yet score-settlers such as Palin, Sanford and Young never address these issues except through the filter of their branding (knee-jerk conservatism, an embrace of the amorphous terrain of family values, a sense of having been betrayed).
Instead, they offer small-bore recitations, recounting the sins of an unfaithful nation, an unfaithful husband, an unfaithful boss. Never do they actually look inward; when Sanford writes that the breakup of her marriage hasn’t changed her, that she has “given of herself . . . [and] worked on building character,” she’s not so much telling a story as repeating a talking point.
The focus here is recrimination, not politics, and not even memoir in the truest sense. A memoir -- a good one, anyway -- is open-ended, full of questions, whereas “Staying True” (or “Going Rogue” or “The Politician”) is as closed as a piece of writing can be, a book in which we know the story before we start to read.
It would be one thing if such books were marketed as what they are -- attempts to cash in on public drama or celebrity. The problem is that they come framed as news. Each book lands with a full-court press in the media, as if there is anything in them we don’t already know. It’s a de facto dance of complicity among writer, publisher and news outlet, and it degrades the quality of public discourse by turning it into little more than an opportunity to sell books.
This is even true of “Game Change,” the only one of these efforts that isn’t a memoir, that is reported, that functions in some recognizable sense as news. Yet, experienced reporters though they may be, Heilemann and Halperin fall prey to the demands of a culture of innuendo, relying on unnamed sources and seeding their account of the 2008 presidential election with a strong dose of marital intrigue.
In a perverse sense, all of this does serve to humanize our public figures, which may also have been what John Kennedy had in mind. But one can’t help but wonder, in considering “Game Change,” what Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President 1960" -- the granddaddy of contemporary election literature -- might have read like had its author focused on the private life of Kennedy’s father or Richard M. Nixon.
Would it have given us a more nuanced view of the election? Or just a titillating taste of what goes on behind closed doors?
That’s the issue with this new crop of political writing: the insistence on reducing the conversation to the lowest common denominator in the name of something that is neither politics nor news.
Ulin is The Times’ book editor.