Can George survive without JFK Jr.?

The star-struck political magazine was losing money, ads and readers even before its founder's tragic disappearance.

Published July 18, 1999 9:00AM (EDT)

Even as the Coast Guard continued its search and rescue mission in the wake of the disappearance of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and sister-in-law in their private plane off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, media watchers were speculating about the fate of his magazine, George: Can it survive the death of its founder, president and editor in chief?

There is a lot of speculation that it will not. Rumors of George's demise have been circulating for months. George's contract with its current publisher, Paris-based Hachette Filipacchi Medias, expires at the end of the year. Kennedy has long been rumored to be at odds with the magazine's publishers, and acknowledged publicly that he was considering shopping George around. He was sighted last year meeting with Conde Nast CEO Steve Florio.

Financial troubles and declining readership continue to plague the magazine. Last year, the magazine's circulation dropped nearly 5 percent, to just over 400,000. Ad revenues had fallen 20 percent in the first half of 1999, and the magazine is a long way from profitability, losing nearly $4 million a year. The New York Post had begun a virtual George death watch, regularly weighing in with evidence of its struggles.

But rumors of the magazine's demise are not new, and have proved wrong in the past. Even now, some writers remain optimistic that George will endure. "I don't think John Kennedy, as smart as he [was] in an editorial sense, is essential to [the magazine's] future," said New Yorker staff writer Kurt Andersen. But without Kennedy, it "would lose credibility as a venue for advertising. John Kennedy [was] very smart about going after advertisers."

The four-year-old political mag is Kennedy's legacy. After a well-publicized wrestling match with the New York State Bar exam, and a brief stint as a Manhattan prosecutor, Kennedy left his law career behind to found George, and he gave it the tagline, "not politics as usual." When asked about its mission, he often riffed that politics was the greatest show on earth, and he wanted a magazine that covered politics the way Sports Illustrated covered sports.

George covered politics, Kennedy-style, with a heavy dose of glamor and celebrity. It made sense for a man born in the public eye, whose every developmental stage, since birth, has been captured by the cameras. The fusion of celebrity and politics defined George, from the first issue which featured Cindy Crawford cross-dressed as a midriff-baring George Washington (the magazine's namesake)on the cover, to the most recent, dated August 1999, the political humor issue, featuring actor Ben Stiller.

"Clearly, he was not editing this magazine for people who knew a lot about politics," said Edward Klein, former editor in chief of the New York Times Magazine and author of several best-selling Kennedy biographies. "It was an effort to reach audiences who needed politics to be sugar-coated with pop culture -- and he being the greatest pop culture figure of them all."

In the wake of the tragedy of Kennedy's presumed death, it will be tempting to praise George as his legacy. But the magazine was often not just star-struck, but sophomoric. Though it positioned itself as a nexus between politics and pop culture, George was relatively silent on the greatest fusion of those two worlds in American history, the Clinton impeachment drama. Not one George story about the crisis lingers in memory, though it was precisely the kind of fertile ground in which a meta-political magazine should have flourished.

Likewise, the current issue of George proclaims Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., Sonny's widow, a Republican "sex symbol," with a photo that looks like a throwaway from the original "Xena: Warrior Princess" photo shoot: Bono sporting teased glam-rock hair with a fuzzy bikini top and baby-blue suede tassled briefs. A political feature on Republican presidential also-ran Lamar Alexander, who is becoming the Harold Stassen of his generation, proclaims "[Lamar] Alexander and the American people might just be ready for each other."

To his credit, Kennedy made a sincere effort to escape the prison of his family's political liberalism, which would be death to a general interest magazine. In recent months, he brought on Tony Blankley, former advisor to Newt Gingrich, as a political columnist, and former Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato signed on to write an advice column. A recent piece by conservative columnist and possible congressional candidate Ann Coulter on why she doesn't date Washington men created a stir, and elicited a massive response both from George readers and other media outlets.

But Kennedy remained central to George's voice and vision. In 1997, he used the magazine as his forum to blast members of his own family as "poster children of bad behavior." And capitalizing on his status as a sex symbol -- Kennedy was named People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" in 1988 -- he posed nude in a 1997 issue. Earlier this year, Kennedy again made news by inviting porn publishing magnate Larry Flynt to the White House Correspondents Association gala in Washington.

"He was always more important than the magazine," says a source who has worked closely with George. "It wasn't a real organization, nor was it a political organization, but it operated like one, with one person at the head of it."

George writers give Kennedy points for making a genuine effort to learn the job of magazine editor on the fly. Though he had no experience in journalism before the birth of George, staff members generally spoke of his ability to learn quickly, though some suggested he lacked the ability to laugh at himself through the process.

"The problem was that John really wanted to be good at it, and it was bad that it wasn't what he was good at" said one magazine source. "He had natural instincts as an editor, but he ever let a professional organization come around him."

Throughout its four-year history, George has burned through members of its inner circle. Co-founder Michael Berman left the magazine due to conflicting visions with Kennedy, and former executive editors Eric Etheridge and Elizabeth Mitchell have both moved on.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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