For bored shoppers seeking titillation in the supermarket checkout line, the October i0 issue of the National Enquirer did not disappoint. Sandwiched between write-ups on Mexican wolf boys and Oprah's suicidal niece, one story stood out as the week's most lurid. hockingly, at least 600,000 children are being bought and sold on our nation's streets today for the perverted sexual pleasure of adults," began a story on page 19. "Incredibly, some of them are only toddlers, 3, 4, and 5. It is one of America's greatest shames!"
Toddler sex slaves? For sale on city streets? It was enough to make even jaded Enquirer readers put down their groceries and pay attention. And it got worse. In prose as purple as any churned out at the tabloid's Lantana, Florida, headquarters, the author went on to describe "boys and girls standing in doorways, waiting for lecherous lowlifes to express interest"; pimps "buying and selling children like so much meat in a butcher shop"; and kids willing to "have sex for whatever it takes to survive another day -- a hot pizza, a place to sleep, a coat to wear."
Shocking stuff. But so was the byline that accompanied the story: "Rep. Jack Kingston (R.-Ga.)"
Or maybe not so shocking. As regular readers of the tabloid know, Jack Kingston isn't the first member of Congress to write for the National Enquirer, though he may have come the closest to replicating the newspaper's unique prose style. Kingston's colleagues have been appearing in the Enquirer for years, flying far below the radar of official Washington to reach an otherwise unreachable audience. At least that's the idea.
Like any sensible politician, Kingston didn't just describe America's latest, greatest shame; he offered a solution: "We need a tough new federal law to combat child prostitution, one that provides hefty mandatory no-parole sentences for the adults involved. I will work hard to see that such legislation is passed."
How did a respected second-term Republican from Savannah end up in pages normally reserved for voluptuous gal pals, cheating hubbies, and Liz? Not by accident, says his press secretary, Robyn Ridgley, who boasts that her boss has appeared in the tabloid quite a few times. "Jack is not a snob towards the Enquirer." Nor should he be, says Ridgley, since tabloids like the Enquirer "do more to research the accuracy of their stories than probably any major newspaper combined, and they will have less corrections than the Washington Post and the New York Times. They go out of their way and probably have more lawyers on staff than anyone else because they have so much at stake."
Ridgley should know. She used to work in the "inner circle" of television producer Norman Lear (she describes the experience as "fabulous, fabulous" and Lear as "an old-fashioned family man," who "loved my conservative, old- fashioned family values -- but that's another story"). She also once wrote an episode of The Facts of Life, an early-80s sitcom. "I've got like 20 years experience in Hollywood with every superstar you could name," she says. So when Robyn Ridgley talks about tabloids, it's with the gravity of an insider. "They can be your greatest friend or your greatest enemy," she explains.
For Jack Kingston, Ridgley says, they've been a boon companion, "an extremely valuable asset." And why not? Ridgley claims that she and the congressman have nothing against residents of trailer parks, nor do they " judge people who read tabloids -- let "era." From time to time, editors from the Enquirer "call us to give us the opportunity to what we call "blast" something. They bring us the facts and figures on a story they're working on and they'll ask us to fill in a quote." Ridgley admits that the paper does take liberties with the truth -- in fact, she says, in her days with Norman Lear, she never spoke to the Enquirer because "my integrity wouldn't allow me to." Then again, Norman Lear doesn't have to run for offxce every two years. Jack Kingston does.
So if the estimates about kiddie hookers sound unlikely, not to say ridiculous, so what? "We can't swear to it," says Ridgley, "but just like other statistics, they're as sound as -- well, you know." Accuracy, in other words, is not the key. "The key," Ridgley explains, "is to communicate with the people in your district. If it does that, we'll do it."
And what do the folks back in ingston's district -- in Georgia counties like Bacon and Appling and Toombs -- think of the story? Richard Fogaley, an editor at the daily Savannah News and Press who has covered Rep. Kingston in years past, sounds baffled when asked if child prostitution is a major issue in the mostly rural district. "No, never really have heard much talk about it. I mean, like anywhere else in the South, it would be taboo," he says. "But I've never heard it come up as an issue. I don't think anybody here has realized he had an article in the Enquirer. I'm stunned, to be honest with you."
They may be stunned back in Savannah, but not on the Hill, where the Enquirer is considered a prime publicity vehicle for congressmen hoping to sway preliterate voters. "You're reaching probably over a score million Americans, and they're in my judgment a core Republican constituency," says Tony Blankley, whose boss, Speaker Newt Gingrich, has had a number of pieces in the Enquirer. "If you want to reach the people who are eventually going to be voting, you have to reach beyond those people who are Mac-Neil- Lehrer junkies. And the National Enquirer precisely fits that bill. It is in fact a legitimate news organization. It has almost routinely won its libel suits." (With an emphasis on the "almost": Two weeks ago actor Clint Eastwood was awarded $ 150,000 by a jury that found the Enquirer had libeled him by printing an interview that never took place.)
Sounding a bit defensive, Blankley describes an Enquirer not at all like the sex-and-celebrity-drenched rag most people remember: "I think a lot of people who don't read the National Enquirer might put it in the same category as the freak shows you see in tabloids, but it's not. It is not a space alien magazine," he says, obviously unaware that the latest issue carries a story entitled -- yes -- "We Were Abducted By Space Aliens." The Enquirer, says Blankley, is "entertaining, written in a very accessible manner, and fun to read. It touches beyond the hard-core, nuts-and-bolts, wonkish news coverage of government."
That's for sure. Take a recent piece by Sonny Bono, in which the new congressman offers "tips I followed to achieve success in life -- and I guarantee that if you use them, they'll make you a success, too." Under the heading "Don't look back," Bono tells readers, "One thing I like about politics is that you can kiss and make up after an election night. Sadly, that's often not how people act in their personal lives. A perfect example is the nasty public blast my ex-wife Chef made after I won the Congressional election." (She compared him to a used-car salesman.) The congressman concedes that Chef's remark "is a funny zinger, but it also shows that she's still carrying the bitterness of our divorce -- and that's not healthy. It's been 18 years since our split. She should stop letting the past cause her misery."
Tony Blankley has a point -- taking a dig at your ex-wife in the pages of the National Enquirer deftnitely does not qualify as "hardcore, nuts-and- bolts, wonkish news coverage of government."
But then, neither does former-congressman Tom Luken's 1989 Enquirer story, "Do We Need A National Lottery?" Luken, then a Democrat representing a Cincinnati district, led the article with an offer almost surely not found in his regular campaign literature: "Do you want to become an instant billionaire?" he asked in an eye-catching first line. "You could have that chance under legislation I've introduced in Congress to begin a billion- dollar national lottery." What National Enquirer reader could resist such a pitch? What congressman could resist making it?
Not many, apparently. Politicians, says long-time Enquirer editor Iain Calder, write pieces for the tabloid "constantly, really quite often." Bob Dornan of California, for instance, "has been in our paper a number of times - - not his most extreme positions, but things that seem to be common sense." Lee Atwater was another fan. ("Lee used the Enquirer to help get George Bush elected," wrote Atwater's widow, Sally, in a piece for the paper two years ago.) Politicians "are generally quite cooperative with us," Calder says. And for good reason: "We only go to them on things that we know they're going to agree with us on."
It's easy to see why an offer to write for the Enquirer might be tempting for a publicity-starved elected official. A former press secretary for retired California congressman and sometime Enquirer contributor William Dannemeyer remembers the conundrum: "You sit back as a member and you think, "do I risk the chance of getting ridiculed by my peers, or do I just go ahead and put it in there and reach all these people?'" For some, it's not a hard question.
By Tucker Carlson