The Man Who Invented Celebrity Politics

How Walter Winchell created the media environment that enabled Trump’s rise.

For the Washington Monthly’s 50th anniversary issue, twenty former editors revisited one of their most important stories for this magazine. They looked at pieces that had an impact on the world or on themselves; that presaged something big to come; or that were totally wrong in an interesting way. Below is one of the resulting essays. Read more of them here.

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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 the intersection of celebrity and politics. A stark sound bite led to more exposure; more exposure led to a larger audience for one’s sound bites; and the larger audience led to greater political power.

This dynamic started with the kind of fame that in many ways began with Winchell. “A mention in his column or on his broadcast meant that one was among the exalted,” Gabler wrote in his biography. “It meant that one’s name was part of the general fund of knowledge. It meant that one’s exploits, even if they were only the exploits of dining, rated acknowledgement. It meant that one’s life was validated.” As my review noted, “The good about this is that it opened the way for people of accomplishment but not of high birth to become leading members of society (Damon Runyon, Joe DiMaggio, Tennessee Williams). The bad is that celebrity became an end in itself, with everybody beginning to think of himself as a potential market commodity.”

The piece did not mention Donald Trump, but it might well have. His electoral victory in 2016 was about many things—not only nativism, xenophobia, isolationism, and anger, but also celebrity, specifically the kind of celebrity that Winchell helped create. Attention created fame; fame led to more attention; and more attention led to power. The reason for the attention being paid in the first instance did not matter; in Winchell’s world, everything was about heat, not light. And that, alas, is the world we live in still.

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Jon Meacham

Jon Meacham is a biographer who holds the Rogers Chair in the American Presidency at Vanderbilt University. He was an editor at the
Washington Monthly from 1993 to 1994.