A prominent and rich family. A drunk-driving arrest. Serious doubts about intelligence. A misspent youth. Sudden inspiration through the Bible. It’s interesting how two of the most unpopular and divisive figures in America today—George W. Bush and Paris Hilton—have so much in common. And on Wednesday, June 27, they found themselves in an unusual competition: Whose legal crisis would dominate the news cycle?
That morning, 24 hours after Paris Hilton was released from a California jail, Us Weekly, the magazine I edit, made headlines for its decision to ban Hilton coverage from its current issue. Instead, the magazine made room for 12 pages of Hollywood baby pictures. In some ways, the decision to ban Paris was a pragmatic one: Her release occurred too late during our Monday night close for us to offer much reporting on it, and we hadn’t landed a post-prison interview. (When Hilton’s attorney asked Us to offer a bid to interview the heiress, our request to make it a charitable donation to an organization such as MADD was rejected.) But I also sensed an ever-mounting public frustration—”Please let me off this ride!”—with the Paris story. It’s a feeling shared unanimously by the Us staff, and it led me to believe that—at least for this week and maybe for longer—the absence of Paris Hilton is, perhaps, the best way to reflect readers’ interests.
What I was unprepared for, however, was the apparent banning of Bush coverage from CNN. That day, as the Senate judiciary committee issued subpoenas to the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, the Justice Department, and the National Security Council in its investigation of the wiretapping scandal, the cable news network that bills itself as “the most trusted name in news” chose instead to devote two prime-time hours to the woman widely credited for inspiring Britney Spears to not wear underpants.
On Larry King Live, the new “I’m done playing dumb” Hilton—blue contact lenses removed—recounted her 23 days in jail. Her self-penned “Letters From a Hollywood Jail” served as props. Among the revelations (besides the fact that no broadcaster should ever try to fill a whole hour with a Paris Hilton interview): 1) She read the Bible “a lot” in jail but couldn’t cite a favorite passage; 2) she committed a crime but does not consider herself a criminal; 3) that funny-looking cigarette she was smoking in her sex tape and several other still photographs could not possibly have been pot because, she says, she has never, ever done drugs. More amusing, however, was reading the pained expression of Anderson Cooper, the man who revived TV journalism during Hurricane Katrina, as he moderated a panel of “experts” for another full hour of Paris.
But I get it. I understand why Paris Hilton trumps interest in Bush’s eavesdropping, whether or not she’s on the cover of Us Weekly. The Paris story may be getting old, but the Bush one feels even older. Cultural critics like to decry our tabloid obsessions, assuming that Americans are too apathetic, dumb, or lazy to follow important political stories as they unfold. But I think the real problem is that George Bush is no longer that guy Americans would rather have a beer with. Like Paris, he is someone we no longer want to think is “just like us.” He’s become a former political celebrity few want on their red carpet. From Abramoff to Abu Ghraib to Alberto Gonzales, and those are just the scandals filed under “A,” Bush’s West Wing is now Washington’s own version of Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D-List. The result? “Please let us off this ride!” It’s no wonder we feel a national disengagement and desire for escape as the end remains a distant 17 months away. Paris told Larry King that soldiers in Iraq, whose lives are more threatened by IEDs than starlet DUIs, actually sent her fan letters in jail. Apparently, they too—even more than those of us here—need a mindless distraction.