THE MAN WHO INVENTED CELEBRITY POLITICS.

Author:Meacham, Jon
 
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My time at the Washington Monthly was coming to an end when Neal Gabler's wonderful biography of Walter Winchell, Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity, was published in the fall of 1994. A widely read and watched columnist and broadcaster, Winchell was an architect of the twentieth-century media ethos in which fame, rather than birth or achievement, became America's dominant signifier. Drawing from show business and politics and sports, Winchell created a national cast of characters who trouped across his virtual stage. Before People magazine, before Larry King Live, before TMZ, there was Walter Winchell.

Then, as now, Monthly book reviews were often a vehicle for wide political and cultural commentary, but I, at age twenty-five, didn't have an awful lot of political and cultural commentary to spread widely. Which brings us to the magazine's founder and then editor in chief, Charlie Peters. Over pizza, Negronis, and beer, Charlie talked about the Age of Winchell, that mid-twentieth-century period in which many Americans who had moved from rural communities to the cities needed a new ambient drama. In the old days, networks of kith and kin had provided fodder for conversation and contemplation. In a more urbanized world, radio (which became broadly popular in the 1920s) and tabloid newspapers filled the void. You may not have known what your grandmother was up to, but you could keep abreast of Babe Ruth's exploits on and off the field, or follow who was getting "Reno-vated" (a Winchellism for a Nevada divorce).

And so, taking advantage of Gabler's book and Charlie's memories, I wrote about the Winchell-ization of politics. By the early 1990s, CNN--then the major cable news outlet; Fox and MSNBC would not be founded until 1996--was making powerful figures out of politicians who were willing to be hyperbolic on camera, on demand. Newt Gingrich was one beneficiary of...

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