March 3, 1996 – 11:00 PM
Late last year, Walter Anderson, the editor of Parade magazine, was summoned to the White House to meet the president. Anderson had just been nominated to serve as a member of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, a little-known post whose primary perk appears to be a grip-and-grin with the commander in chief. After waiting his turn in line with other minor luminaries, Anderson received an audience with Bill Clinton. The editor’s voice quickens as he describes what happened next. “When I got to him,” Anderson recounts, “I was introduced as the editor of Parade. The first thing that the president said was, ‘I read Personality Parade every week.’ And I said, ‘Of course you do, Mr. President. Everybody does.'”
Anderson is given to hyperbole, so it would be easy to dismiss his account as a fish story. Except that at least one part of it is undeniably true. Just about everybody does read Personality Parade, the catty gossip column penned by the pseudonymous Waiter Scott that for nearly 40 years has appeared on the inside cover of Parade, the Sunday supplement. Considering that Parade is now the most widely distributed magazine in the country — reaching 37,156,000 households and perhaps 81 million readers every week via 340 Sunday newspapers — it seems likely Bill Clinton does scan Personality Parade from time to time.
And our president must like what he sees.
Personality Parade has never been your average gossip column. Along with the obligatory items about hunky celebs and boozing starlets, the column has since its inception in the late 1950s served up a steady stream of left-of- center agitprop. For every answer to questions about Madonna’s failed acting career or Johnny Cash’s arrest record, there are others that contain a clear – – if not always straightforward — political agenda. In Walter Scott’s Personality Parade, gossip is more than simply entertainment; it’s a political weapon. And nobody has benefited more from its use than Bill Clinton.
Consider a few of the many Clinton-related questions and answers that have appeared in the column in recent years. Any truth to the rumors that Bill Clinton is an incurable womanizer? queried “K.C.” from New York City in February 1995. None at all, assured Personality Parade: “If there was any hard evidence that the President of the U.S. was womanizing, you can be certain it would have appeared by now in the media.” In fact, the column asserted in response to another question on the subject, the president’s real problem is not adultery, but a failure “to come up with a more effective strategy to combat today’s tabloid-style journalism.”
What about Clinton’s enormous 1993 tax increase? asked “D.L.T.” from Seattle in January 1995. No reason to be upset about that, assured Personality Parade, since the tax is “mostly on the wealthy.” And why would anybody complain about soaking the rich? After all, readers learned in another item later that year, the “average American” is “socially progressive. ”
When Elise T. Bowman of Chaptico, Md., wrote in January 1994 to express concern that the hundreds of experts working on Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan might be costing taxpayers a bundle, the column did its best to put her mind at ease. It is hard to know, came the reply, exactly how much in expenses the “10 to 15 people” working full time on the plan might be ringing up. But “even if their salaries, travel and other expenses amounted to millions, . . . it would be only a tiny fraction of America’s 1993 health expenditure.”
The column’s positive spin has been extended to nearly every member of the Clinton administration. In one column from early 1994, White House flack George Stephanopoulos made an appearance as a “tousle-haired bachelor” irresistible to women. Hillary Clinton, who was also the subject of an unprecedented entire issue of Parade, has assumed almost saint-like qualities in the column, appearing again and again as a “highly intelligent and ambitious” woman with “her own impressive credentials.”
The Clintons may have come off well in Personality Parade, but their critics have not. A 1994 item described Rush Limbaugh as not “much of an original thinker” who “knows how to deliver his dark vision of America’s future in a humorous and folksy way.” Limbaugh’s popularity, the column said, could be attributed “to an ability to tap into people’s deep-seated fears of women, minorities and cultural change.” Other critics of the administration were described as mean, stingy, and closed-minded, if not actually part of ” arch-conservative blocs like the Christian Coalition.” In 1994 alone, the column threw mud on Newt Gingrich for leaving his first wife, Nell Bush (son of George) for his “ethical lapses” in the banking industry, and Marilyn and Dan Quayle’s parents for being part of the “extreme right-wing.” William E Buckley, Jr. fared especially poorly. “As a child, little Bill was considered somewhat obnoxious by his older brothers and sisters, and he had few friends,” confided a June 1994 column.
Acting as a champion for liberal causes is nothing new for Personality Parade. If anything, under former editor Lloyd Shearer, who wrote under the name Walter Scott for more than three decades, the column was even more political. During the early 1970s, Personality Parade often assumed an openly partisan tone, attacking Richard Nixon nearly every week. in iust three weeks in January 1974, for instance, readers learned, among other things, that Gerald Ford was “mediocre,” that “Nixon knows that he’s a poor judge of personnel,” and that John Mitchell and Bob Haldeman were “two basically angry, abrasive, suspicious and unfriendly men.”
The tone of the column cooled during the Reagan years, but the gist remained the same. Shearer specialized in using the questions themselves to make his editorial point. Hence, a May 1986 item from “K.L.” in McLean, Va., asked, “Who is the member of the Reagan Cabinet referred to as ‘Fathead’? And which of the Washington lobbyists with great access to the White House is known as ‘The Raging Queen’?” Shearer didn’t answer that question. He didn’t need to. The question itself did the trick.
When Shearer did answer the questions, his position was clear as ever. Reagan’s decision to attack Libya, he wrote shortly after the bombing began, ” will probably lead to increased retaliatory terrorism.” Asked how Reagan would be remembered, were he to die, Shearer replied that “history would record him as the oldest man, as well as the first divorce and first film star, ever elected president.” As for the president’s children, the “Reagan offspring have capitalized on their family name or relationship.”
Shearer reached his lowest — or perhaps least guarded — point in the spring of 1990, when he answered a question about Fidel Castro in the following way: “On the whole he is liked and respecteel in Cuba. If a national election were held there today, he no doubt would win, even if opposition were allowed.” The reason? Fidel, said Shearer, is “admired by Hispanics, albeit grudgingly in some cases, as the only Latin Americanjefe (chief) to have defeated a U.S.-backed invasion of his country.”
Answers like these didn’t do much for Parade’s reputation as a light- hearted family magazine, and in 1991 Shearer, then in his late 70s, relinquished the column (though not his affliation with the magazine). He was replaced by Edward Klein, a respected former Newsweek editor who at one time ran the New York Times Magazine. Klein is by all accounts not terribly ideological, more interested in celebrities than politicians. Yet the column spins on unabated.
One of the more fascinating aspects of Personality Parade is its apparent omniscience. The column seems able to discern the deepest desires and motives of the people it writes about, especially politicians. Editor Walter Anderson describes the “voice” of the column as “that wonderful guest, that entertaining guest you’d love to have in your room that’s really a very wise and sophisticated person that seems to know everything that’s going on. You’ve met people like this — the life of the party, the person who really knows what’s going on.” And how does Personality Parade know what’s really going on? “Consider how many contacts we have in the White House itself and in the administration,” replies Anderson. “We have direct access.”
Yes, Personality Parade does have that. Or at least Lloyd Shearer does. Shearer has himself spawned a small army of Clinton administration contacts. One of his sons, Derek Shearer, worked as both an economic adviser to the Clinton campaign and as deputy undersecretary of commerce in the administration. (Derek was later nominated to be ambassador to Finland, but was stopped in the Senate by Republicans wary of his leftist politics.) Lloyd’s daughter Brooke Shearer currently is head of the White House Fellows program. And Shearer’s son-in-law, Strobe Talbott, who at one time wrote several articles for Parade under the pseudonym Clyde Carmichael, is Number Two at the State Department.
Contacts like these help explain items like the one that ran in the January 23, 1994, issue of Parade. In a rare swipe at a Clinton administration offcial, Secretary of State Warren Christopher was described in the column as having “plenty” of critics, both in the White House and elsewhere. Still, readers should not fear for the future of America’s foreign policy, assured Personality Parade: “The recent appointment of longtime Clinton pal Strobe Talbott as the No. 2 man in the State Department positions him to take over if Christopher should falter.”
The more literate may (and do) dismiss the influence of Parade. It is, after all, an insert known for its fluffy, marginally relevant features on topics like “The Cast of Baywatch: Do You Really Know Them?” Yet it is hard to dismiss the influence Personality Parade has on the attitudes of the electorate, if only because so many people read it. As Walter Anderson humbly explains, Personality Parade is “recognized as the bestread thing in print in the English language other than the Bible.” And Anderson may be right. Actual studies of the subject are hard to find, but there does seem to be a consensus in the newspaper business that, after Page One and particularly interesting news stories,
Personality Parade is the first thing people turn to in the Sunday paper. The column certainly draws an enthusiastic response. Personality Parade gets an average of about 50,000 letters a year, some of them from hard-core devotees like Julian Hammer, an employee of a men’s clothing store in Carteret, N.J., who says he writes the column every day, or “whenever I have something to tell them.”
Personality Parade’s know-it-all tone and apparent influence have caused more than a few to wonder where some of the questions it prints come from. Some just seem too perfect, too well-timed to coordinate with current or breaking news events. A lot of them, frankly, look like set-ups. Could they all be real? “Absolutely,” says Anderson. “Every question is legitimate, it’s from a real reader. Sometimes they’re edited down. But what really matters is the essential question. And every single question is a legitimate question.”
It is hard to check Anderson’s claim with the letter-writers themselves, since a remarkably large number of them — the majority of a random sample — are impossible to track down, simply not listed by the phone company. But of those who do have telephones, more than one disputes Anderson’s characterization of how the magazine’s letters are edited.
The February 20, 1994, Personality Parade, for example, contains a letter from one “M. L. Singer” in Kenwood, Calif. Singer asks: “How much truth is there to the story that Hillary Rodham Clinton is wildly jealous of Vice President Gore’s wife, Tipper, and has purposely kept her in the shadows?” ” There is absolutely no truth to that rumor,” replies Personality Parade, before going on to describe the “genuinely fond” relationship the two women have.
Reached at his home, Mervin Singer — who describes himself as “the only M. L. Singer in Kenwood” — sounds baffled as he remembers reading the letter he ostensibly wrote to Personality Parade. Singer says he never asked about jealousy between the first and second ladies. He simply wanted to know where Mrs. Gore got the nickname “Tipper.” But when the letter appeared in Parade, “It came out with this thing about jealousy and all this kind of stuff. It really wasn’t my original question, but I guess he [the editor] made up his own question.” Meanwhile, Singer’s letter had been transformed by Personality Parade into a handy p. r. vehicle for the Clinton White House.
Something similar happened to Walter Gaskins. In late-1993, the Phoenix businessman sent Personality Parade a stinging letter about Bill Clinton. Gaskins, who grew up in Arkansas and describes himself as a longtime critic of the former governor, wanted to know how, in a democracy, Clinton could have been elected president when fewer than 50 percent of Americans had voted for him. On February 13, 1994, Personality Parade printed Gaskins’s letter. Only it wasn’t the same letter. “President Clinton was elected with 43 percent of the popular vote, but he obviously got a majority in the Electoral College,” the new version began. “Has a candidate ever won a plurality of the popular vote but actually lost in the Electoral College?”
Gaskins says he was “shocked” when he opened the Sunday paper to find that his criticism of President Clinton had been turned into a history lesson. “It was totally skewed,” Gaskins remembers, “the exact opposite of what I had written.” More than that, it was embarrassing: “All my family lives back in Arkansas, and they asked me, ‘Why did you write that?’ and I said ‘Well, I didn’t write that.’ After that, I stopped reading Parade.” Irritated, Gaskins wrote another letter to Parade asking why the meaning of his letter had been altered. He never heard back. “So I wrote in to that lady with the highest IQ in the world” — that’s Marilyn vos Savant, whose column of brainteasers appears weekly in Parade — “and I said, ‘You’re obviously a pretty sharp lady, why would you all do this?’ But I didn’t get a response.”
By Tucker Carlson