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JFK's trouble with George

John F Kennedy Jr started `George' magazine so that people would take him seriously. But stories of fisticuffs at the office and strife at home have hit him where it hurts. By Daniel Jeffreys
Last week somebody tried to rip off John F Kennedy Jr's shirt, and it wasn't his wife, Carolyn Bessette. Although she has had several public fights with the only son of the late President Kennedy, these latest fisticuffs took place in the New York offices of George, the glossy political magazine Kennedy began in 1995. JFK Jr's sparring partner was the magazine's executive publisher Michael Berman. Staff members say it is not the first time arguments over the contents of George have led to physical encounters between the two men.

JFK Jr's amateur boxing is just one sign that George may be in trouble. Sadly, the man often dubbed "the sexiest alive" is also rumoured to be at odds with his new wife, who is reported to have demanded a larger pre- nuptial agreement after finding life in the spotlight with "John-John" can be tough.

Apart from his looks, which on any hunkiness scale beat his father's hands down, JFK Jr has always struggled to live up to his namesake's reputation. When he tried to be an actor, matriarchal Jackie Kennedy Onassis stamped her $500 Park Avenue pump and said, "No". When he took aim at the Bar, he missed, failing his exams twice before passing and spending an undistinguished five years in the Manhattan District Attorney's office. Politics frequently waved a siren finger but nobody ever pushed him too hard to run for anything more than Congress.

By 1995, JFK Jr was a man who thought he should be a star, desperately looking for a stage. He had girlfriends hanging on his every word and the adoration of Sharon Stone, but he feared that nobody respected him for his mind.

He made his own stage with George. From the start Kennedy, who had no prior experience in magazine publishing, had a clear-cut vision of a personality- based political magazine. "Political magazines should look like Mirabella," he told the New York Times in 1996. "They should look like Elle. They should look like really inviting, accessible, exuberant youthful magazines."

In George, it's hard to tell where the photos of a politician's hometown stop and the Ralph Lauren ads begin. Kennedy's assumption from the beginning seems to have been that politics is a lifestyle choice like any other, that registering a vote is like purchasing jeans or perfume. As Kennedy says, George "doesn't just cover politics, it celebrates it". That makes JFK Jr believe he's on the cutting edge, with a magazine aimed at 25- to 49-year-old college-educated men and women who get their political information from a variety of alternative sources - a trend Kennedy claims began with the 1992 presidential election when politics began migrating into channels of popular culture like MTV.

"George is a lifestyle magazine with politics at its core, illuminating the points where politics converges with business, media, entertainment, fashion, art and science," JFK Jr wrote in his first "editor's letter" back in October 1995.

"The problem has been that George is largely just another vehicle for celebrating America's obsession with models and movie stars," says one George editor, one of several alleged to be uncomfortable with the magazine's direction. "It's a marketing ploy. Vanity Fair uses popular culture as its stage for showcasing Hollywood, George uses politics. The results are strikingly similar. There's no `convergence' between politics and showbusiness - media and entertainment are the whole deal."

When JFK Jr came up with the concept for George he would probably have been laughed out of town were it not for the family name. Political magazines do not prosper in the US. Most have tiny circulations and become a money pit, like Rupert Murdoch's loss-making Washington-based vanity sheet, the Weekly Standard. It is probably fair to say that only John F Kennedy Jr could have sold Hachette Filipacchi, a French publishing firm now expanding in America, on the idea of a fat, glossy, perfume-enriched political magazine - a kind of People, in JFK Jr's words, for people interested in politics.

Yet Kennedy had a unique proposition, for a celebrity-driven product. After all, he's a celebrity himself. When he began George he was not married and a dozen Hollywood starlets were queueing for a date. With his looks, profile and family name there probably wasn't a single celebrity who would not return his call. "That has been key to Kennedy getting his seed corn money from Hachette and all the advertising since its launch," says Samir Hosni, a New York-based magazine consultant. "He gets ads from Armani, DKNY and Polo because he gets Claudia Schiffer, Julia Roberts or Cindy Crawford on to the cover, stars who have little to do with politics but sell magazines. Advertisers have a limited budget and they put their money where they know there will be celebrities."

Almost every George cover has featured a Hollywood celebrity. The latest issue nakedly blasts that it's devoted entirely to Hollywood. George is not breaking any ground here. Even before George's launch, many Manhattanites grumbled that Britain's Tina Brown was prostituting the venerable New Yorker to Hollywood, having already done the same thing to Vanity Fair.

"It's simple," says Hosni. "The Hollywood publicity machine exists to turn down interview requests, except to the chosen few who will treat their clients with kid-gloves. In return, those who get the access to celebrities know they can name their price with advertisers. You either achieve the access by devotedly charming Hollywood, as Tina Brown does, or by being a celebrity yourself, like JFK Jr."

Kennedy admits that his covers are largely a cynical marketing exercise. "This is wrapping," he told Advertising Age after his Julia Roberts cover. "And if there is anything that I feel somewhat frustrated about, it's that I think they suggest more frivolity than the magazine has inside."

But Kennedy also makes no bones about the fact that George uses images such as a shirtless Woody Harrelson with wings and Drew Barrymore in a send-up of Marilyn Monroe to sell magazines on the news-stand.

"I'm an editor and I'm an owner and so I'm a businessman," he says. "We owe an obligation to the magazine and to our advertisers and to our partners to make something that's going to sell and not sit back at night and be content that we've delivered something highbrow."

So far there seems little danger of that. The arguments that JFK Jr is allegedly having with his staff are happening because they yearn for a political magazine with some hard-nosed political content. George's first editor, Eric Etheridge, apparently resigned after two issues because he saw Hollywood's writing on the wall. Now he has been proved right, many George staff members fear a mass exodus may be imminent.

All of which adds to JFK Jr's sense of isolation and that, in turn, is helping make matters difficult at home. Jackie O's son is often away from New York on George business and Carolyn Bessette usually stays behind, where she can read about his exploits in the gossip columns as he chaperones to magazine functions the beautiful women who grace its cover. Their relationship is also apparently beset by his increasing petulance following criticism of George.

Last year he tried to pull a photographer through the window of his truck. A few days before, a political pundit had described George as boring on national television, causing its editor to send a schoolboyish reply.

"I was crushed to hear we here at George have been guilty of boring you," Kennedy wrote to Morton Kondracke, who is an editor at rival magazine Roll Call. "But I don't feel too remorseful. Roll Call and a warm glass of milk does wonders for my insomnia."

So far George's results are mixed. The first two editions had 170 advertising pages. The latest issues average 75 but to give Kennedy credit, he has built the magazine's circulation to 400,000 from an initial 250,000 and Hachette now say they expect George will be profitable in four years rather than five as first planned. With these numbers JFK Jr claims he has the largest circulation political magazine in the US.

Others are not so sure.

"You could call it the smallest circulation entertainment magazine," says Lawrence White at New York University. "That's why it might fail, because its niche is ill-defined. To me, it seems a magazine for anthropologists intrigued by public affairs. There is a sense of detachment, even distance, from its subject and a disinclination to get serious, even for a moment".