From Thomas Jefferson to William Jefferson Clinton, Scorpion Tongues is a popular history of gossip in American politics. Complete with wickedly delightful anecdotes of major and minor politicians and entertainers over the last 200 years, Gail Collins examines the evolving relationship between politicians and the press and the blurring of the lines between politicians and celebrities. Supported by extensive research and written with an entertaining flair, she speculates on how gossip reflects the current moral compass of the time, noting how a rumor, like an unpredictable summer tornado, can flatten one reputation while a similar story passes over another with hardly a rustle. "Hilariously readable" (The Economist), Scorpion Tongues offers sinful scandals and mild hearsay for every taste.
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About the Author
Gail Collins, a columnist for the New York Times, was the the first woman ever to serve as editorial page editor for the paper. Previously, she was a member of the Times editorial board, and a columnist for the New York Daily News and New York Newsday.
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1. Hillary's Lamp
"Suspicions have already been, um, aroused ..."
Inaugural week, 1993: Barbra Streisand led the Celebrity Salute to the new president. Barney the purple dinosaur was the star of the parade. The crowds were so dense that people tried to hoist their kids on the Portosans to get a better view. Bill Clinton, contrary to his supporters' worst fears, did not talk too long after he took the oath of office. The insiders exchanged rumors about who was getting what job and everyone else talked about who was going to what party. The gossip du jour, however, was the story of Hillary Clinton and the lamp. The First Lady, it was whispered, had thrown a lamp at her husband during a fight in the White House. Sometimes the argument was said to have started because the president-elect ogled one of the celebrities at the pre-inaugural show. Sometimes it was about whether or not Hillary Clinton's offices would be located in the critical White House West Wing. Frequently, the story included a subplot about the antagonism between Mrs. Clinton and her Secret Service guards. It remained confined to the nation's capital for about as long as it took to say "e-mail." Up in New York City, Hillary and the lamp were soon a big topic at a party for a retiring city detective. Investigators from the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who had dropped by to wish the detective good-bye entertained the guests with the story, which they said they'd heard from friends in the Secret Service. "Those guys must really hate the Clintons," said a lawyer who had been at the affair, and then called his own circle of acquaintances to spread the tale along.
The lamp story was not, of course, the only gossip of a personal nature about the Clintons during the administration's first days in office. The Washington Monthly's "Who's Who" column tried to float a rumor that there was something more than economic indicators passing between the president and his new appointee to the Council of Economic Advisers. ("Suspicions have already been, um, aroused about one of Bill Clinton's better known weaknesses. Certain insiders say that ... Laura Tyson has the ear and the eye of the president-elect, giving Hillary a new and compelling reason to sit in on all those top-level late night meetings.") There was some perfunctory talk about a woman on the transition team who was supposed to be having a liaison with the chief executive, but it faded away quickly, as would dozens of similar stories that sprang up over the next few years but failed to flower into serious gossip. And The Washington Monthly stampeded into retreat on its Laura Tyson rumor. ("The item was not intended to convey that anything more had happened or that Tyson had sought to use her physical charm to attract the president's attention. Indeed, from all we hear she is one of the more original intellects in his administration and deserves Clinton's attention strictly on the basis of merit.") But the lamp story endured. By March, major publications had begun printing it. By the summer it had achieved such legendary status that people were joking about it on network television. But long before the national media had decided the rumor was worth mentioning, people all across the country had picked it up through more informal communications networks. I went to Ohio for a family party in February, and when I was asked for inside Washington gossip, I offered up Hillary's lamp. But it was old news--my mother had already heard it on Rush Limbaugh's radio show.
Even before the birth of tabloid TV and talk radio, it was possible to pick up quite a bit of gossip about the personal lives of important political figures, no matter where you lived or how communicative the newspapers were feeling. When Boston schoolteacher Barbara Wilson was a child and Dwight Eisenhower was president, she knew there were rumors his wife, Mamie, was a heavy drinker. "I must have heard it from my mother," she recalled. "She loved politics. Not in an active way, but she was a very big reader." How Wilson's mother picked up the information is a mystery. In the 1950s that sort of gossip had to be transmitted word of mouth--The Boston Globe didn't print it, and back then radio shows didn't encourage callers to phone in the latest rumors about the president's home life. Yet the Mamie-drinks rumor, like Hillary's lamp, had a remarkable ability to travel. One of the differences between that discreet age and today was that in the fifties and early sixties, people tended to hear only the gossip that appealed to their political prejudices, or their special interests. Steve Weisman, an editorial writer for The New York Times, grew up in Beverly Hills, where most of his junior high school class had heard that President Kennedy was having an affair with actress Angie Dickinson: "The hotel was right across from my old grade school." But back in Boston, the people in Wilson's neighborhood believed the nation's first Catholic president was a model husband. "He and Jackie had no faults. I couldn't imagine them fighting. I couldn't even imagine them brushing their teeth," she said. The entire Boston parochial school system, Wilson theorized, was out of the gossip loop on that one.
"Those pesky and unproved rumors"
The lamp story, of course, would turn out to be the least of the Clintons' problems when it came to public discussion of the president's private life. But it was gossip that spread without the help of legal inquiry or political spin--less sensational, but more spontaneous, than the talk that was to come. Like other stories that would follow, it spread through an incredibly dense network of gossip routes. Talk radio and the Internet had created a new kind of word of mouth that could spread a rumor across the country in minutes. By the time it reached television via tabloid news shows or a Jay Leno joke, people might have heard the same story from a half-dozen sources, and the mere repetition would make it seem true. The old-line media--newspapers, network news shows, newsmagazines--became less important as transmitters of gossip than as judges of credibility. By paying attention to a rumor, they could raise it to a new level of seriousness--a sort of official gossip.
In March of 1993, the conservative Washington Times became the first paper to print a variant of the lamp rumor, which had the First Lady throwing a book (perhaps a Bible) at a Secret Service guard. Although "trustworthy sources" had discounted the tales, the Times added, the story had spread to papers in "Middle America and Europe." Most reports of gossip about political figures are accompanied by these two elements--an excuse for printing the story (the rumor has gotten so out of control it's being repeated in Berlin and Boise) and a denial. The most powerful denials are the ones from some variation on "trustworthy sources." (The inference is that the reporter has consulted people so reliable they're worth quoting even if their names can't be used.) The weakest come from the subject's spokesperson. (After all, what else would you expect a spokesperson to say?)
The critical point, however, was that the Times story freed other publications from the onus of being the first to print the gossip, and everyone felt freer to leap in. Newsweek ran a story about the rumor in which an angry First Lady threw "a lamp, a briefing book or a Bible" at the president, and added a new fillip--that Mrs. Clinton was rumored to have lit a cigarette to torture her smoke-allergic husband. (The writers personally deemed the cigarette story "outrageous" but simply quoted White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos as denying the thrown-lamp rumor.) White House correspondents asked Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers whether the lamp gossip had created a rift between the president and the Secret Service. Myers called the story "ridiculous" and urged the press to focus on the president's programs, not "the gutter." Her comments were part of a tradition that began with George Washington's wistful suggestion that newspapers should forget about scandal and concentrate on "the debates in Congress on all great national questions."
Myers's comments opened the way for The Washington Post to report, briefly and somewhat impatiently, that "the White House finally felt compelled to deny those pesky and unproved rumors involving all manner of domestic disputes between Bill and Hillary Clinton." (In a one-paragraph story, the Post also managed to move the rumor ahead a step by adding "punches" to the things that might have been thrown.) The Washingtonian weighed in with a conclusion that the throws-lamp-at-Bill part of the story began on Inauguration Day, when the Senate Republicans were penned up in a holding room next to one where the Clintons were fighting. "One prominent senator says he overheard Hillary shouting at Bill and threatening to throw something at him," the magazine reported. The Secret Service had been leaking stories of its own, The Washingtonian said, "including separate bedrooms and lots of loud talk and bad language including lots of the twelve letter 'm' word. One agent claims that Hillary threw her Bible at an agent who was driving too slow."
The Hillary-lamp saga became one of those stories that is so well known it can be referred to in shorthand, without explanation, in a David Letterman Top Ten list or Saturday Night Live skit. By June, when Mrs. Clinton was taking NBC's Katie Couric on a televised White House tour, Couric cheerfully asked her to "point out just where you were when you threw the lamp at your husband."
"Well, you know that's--I'm looking for that spot, too," the First Lady responded.
2. Deconstructing Political Gossip
"Such a filthy old man he had become!"
Gossip covers such a sweeping variety of human behavior that we have to define our terms narrowly. Many people think, for instance, of political gossip as shoptalk--rumors about who's going to be running for Congress next year. But for our purposes, it will only refer to unverified information about a person's private life that he or she might prefer to keep hidden. This is the classic form of gossip, and passing it around has been one of our most popular social activities since privacy was invented. Politicians have been a favorite target throughout history--or at least since the time of the ancient Greeks, when Athenians speculated that Pericles always kept his helmet on because he was embarrassed about his pear-shaped head. The Romans were enthusiastic gossips in political matters--Mark Antony spread the rumor that Augustus got to be emperor by sleeping with Julius Caesar. Parts of Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars, one of Western civilization's most venerable histories, are pure gossip. Tiberius Caesar, Suetonius wrote, trained small boys to "chase him while he went swimming and get between his legs to lick and nibble them ... such a filthy old man he had become!" Americans have never been blessed with quite such colorful anecdotes about their leaders. (Except, perhaps, for one nineteenth-century presidential candidate who was rumored to be a cannibal.) But the public has always passed around stories about politicians' private lives, even though the respectable newspapers have not always printed them.
Gossip answers a wide range of human needs. It makes the teller feel important. It bonds both teller and listener together with a sense of sharing something slightly forbidden. By revealing behavior that's normally hidden, it helps people to understand how things really work in the mysterious world behind closed doors. (A young wife may figure out how to judge and deal with her husband's infidelity by listening to the stories about other straying spouses.) People express their hidden fears through gossip, imposing on others the anxieties they haven't resolved in their own lives. They sometimes also use gossip to reaffirm their commitment to the social order. (Whispering about an acquaintance who wears golf clothes at Sunday services shows you still hold to the tradition of dressing up for church.)
But gossip has sometimes had a subversive role, too. For much of human history, it was one of the few weapons available to the powerless: servants who spread stories about their masters, peasants who irreverently speculated about the most private aspects of life in the manor. (The French peasants had a song about Louis the XVI's penis that was popular as long as the king failed to produce an heir.) Gossip has always been identified as a woman's vice because from the time of the ancient Greeks, men realized that their homebound, anonymous wives had access to the secrets of the master of the house. Aristotle warned gloomily that democracy might lead to a society where women could seize the reins of domestic control, and begin carrying gossip about their husbands to the outside world. In the Middle Ages, "gossip" was connected with childbearing, because the birthing room was one of the few places women gathered without supervision, free to make fun of the men in their fives, and tell their most embarrassing secrets.
In American history, gossip has sometimes been a reaction against heavily marketed politicians who voters might suspect were being thrust upon them against their will. Nineteenth-century presidential candidates promoted as war heroes were often gossiped about as cowards, paragons of virtue as "illegitimate" by birth. Even today, voters who pass around stories about a nominee's drinking habits or womanizing may be attempting to show that they aren't fooled by the barrage of commercials broadcasting his virtues.
Political gossip is, of course, very frequently a tactical weapon that one party or candidate uses to try to weaken an opponent. But while anybody can start a story, it isn't possible to force people to pick up on it and pass it around. The gossip that reverberates and endures isn't always true, but it usually reflects something real about the target, or the national anxieties at a given point in time. When the recently widowed Woodrow Wilson suddenly married Edith Galt, people began to whisper that the two of them had murdered the president's first wife. That wasn't true, of course. But the gossip did express people's discomfort with such stark evidence of a husband's ability to recover from his spouse's death, as well as the general impression that Wilson was something of a cold fish. More balanced citizens relieved their emotions by telling catty jokes about the second Mrs. W. The late columnist Murray Kempton remembered as a boy in the 1920s hearing that when President Wilson asked Mrs. Galt to be his wife, she was so excited she fell out of bed. "I think my sainted mother told me that one," Kempton said.
Gossip that gets floated unsuccessfully tells us things as well. During the weeks before the New Hampshire Republican primary in 1996, Lars-Erik Nelson of the New York Daily News noticed that right-wing radio talk shows were circulating a rumor that Bob Dole had not really been wounded in World War II. His crippled hand, the story went, was just the result of an accident during basic training. That wasn't true. However, if it had caught on, and been repeated by people without any political ax to grind, it might have told us something about the country's mood: that Dole was hanging too much of his campaign on his status as a wounded veteran, perhaps. Or that younger men who have not experienced a war were tired of hearing the older generation talk about theirs. But the story turned out to be more than false--it was unevocative. It tried to tug at emotions that didn't exist, failed gossip that was tossed aside like yesterday's fish.
The lamp story grew and grew because Hillary Clinton stirred up anxiety in many Americans, and the story about her smashed lighting fixture helped them express it without directly confronting the things that were bothering them. Mrs. Clinton was a new kind of First Lady who made it clear she planned to have a policy-making role in the administration. She was carving out that job at a time when the nation hadn't resolved its own feelings about how women should mix the duties of career and marriage. The gossip stirred up many voters' own unresolved concerns about working wives, powerful women, and the proper role of the First Lady. By passing along the rumor that Mrs. Clinton had physically attacked the president, people were expressing their secret fears that she (and maybe by implication all women) would try to push her husband aside and run things herself.
3. The Three Great Eras of Political Gossip
The Kaleidoscope Theory of History
The freedom with which people pass around rumors about their political leaders' private lives has changed dramatically over the last two hundred--odd years, but not necessarily in the way we imagine. We tend to think of history as a continuum, trending ever up or downward. We now know that John Kennedy invited his lovers to swim in the White House pool without fear of exposure, while the details of Bill Clinton's sex life get rehashed every day on talk radio and tabloid TV shows. So we assume that the nation was discreet, concentrating on the political issues rather than scandalous secrets, until some very recent period when we lost our bearings and began obsessively speculating about the private vices of our leaders.
The real progression has been much more erratic. Rather than a continuum, the interaction of gossip and politics is a sort of kaleidoscope, in which new patterns are created with every turn of the wheel. The national morality relaxes or stiffens. An irresistibly likable president is replaced by one with a downright irritating personality. A politician with a closet full of skeletons and an urge to party is followed by a string of men whose idea of a good time is taking a nap after dinner. Each year brings a new mix. The public is doomed to be shocked, hardened, and then reborn into hopeful innocence, over and over.
Still, we can divide the nation's history into three rough eras, depending on how freely people talked (and newspapers wrote) about their leading politicians' private lives. The era of the Founding Fathers was a sort of prologue. Our story really begins with the 1820s, when states began opening the elections up to all (white male) citizens. That was also the beginning of a long period, running through most of the nineteenth century, in which average people were very interested in politics. They were wildly patriotic, but not particularly reverent about their elected officials. People thought nothing of spreading stories that a candidate had an illegitimate child, was concealing his Negro ancestry or Catholic faith. They jeered at Andrew Jackson as a bully and adulterer, passed around stories that Martin Van Buren wore women's corsets, distributed leaflets listing how Henry Clay had broken each one of the Ten Commandments ("spends his days at a gaming table and his nights in a brothel"), and accused Daniel Webster of being a drunken boor who couldn't keep his hands off innocent female clerical workers. Abraham Lincoln was rumored in the South to be a secret Negro ("Abraham Africanus the First") and in the North to be a war profiteer. The press compared Andrew Johnson unfavorably to Caligula's horse and speculated that Grover Cleveland would turn the White House into a bordello.
Then, around the turn of the century, things slowly began to quiet down. The nation no longer found politics fascinating--it had discovered movies and radio band singers and professional baseball. There was much less idle talk about politicians once people had the opportunity to speculate about the private lives of Mary Pickford and Babe Ruth and discuss the shocking rumors about what comedian Fatty Arbuckle did to the starlet Virginia Rappe in his hotel room. Political figures weren't entirely exempt, of course, particularly during election years. People whispered that Woodrow Wilson had an affair with a mystery woman named Mrs. Peck, that Warren Harding was part Negro, that William McKinley beat his wife, and that Franklin Roosevelt and his entire family were alcoholics, as well as Theodore Roosevelt, and of course Mamie Eisenhower. But the media ignored this sort of talk. When one of Franklin Roosevelt's top officials got caught drunkenly propositioning the railroad porters on a train trip, the president confidently and accurately announced no newspaper would ever print the story.
This quiet and sometimes self-satisfied era ran from around World War I until the American involvement in Vietnam. Voters, if they chose, could easily convince themselves that the people running their government were faithful spouses and temperate drinkers, paragons whose public images were in perfect accord with their private behavior. "The fifties were a curious age," said Russell Baker, who covered Washington during the apex of that discreet period. "You'd go on vacation with Eisenhower, and the local people would come up and say: 'What sort of man is he?' And you'd say 'Well, he's rather cold.' They didn't want to hear that. They were convinced he was a great guy and they didn't want to be disillusioned or have fun made of him."
In the 1970s, things changed again. The public moved from disinterest in politics to something that bordered on contempt. There may actually have been less political gossip than ever, given the declining number of people interested in doing the talking. But what there was got printed, repeated, and, eventually, e-mailed, posted on the Internet, and masticated in talk radio and tabloid TV. The cynicism that began with scandals like Watergate and the disillusionment over the war in Vietnam prepared the public to hear almost anything--that the mayor of Seattle's wife had shot him when she caught him with another man, that the First Lady had murdered her lover, or that the Republican and Democratic candidates for president were both covering up an affair with a woman named J(G)ennifer. The politicians helped the process along by promoting themselves on television and radio in a manner guaranteed to remove any barriers the public felt to freely discussing their most personal secrets.
These shifts were created by all sorts of changes in the society and economy, particularly the development of communications technology, the decline of the power of political parties, and the growth of the entertainment industry. Of course, the deportment of the politicians mattered, too. If congressmen get shot by their mistresses, or a president is hit with a sexual harassment suit, people will talk, whatever the socioeconomic conditions. But when all the forces come together, like some sinister alignment of the planets, they can pull even the most discreet figures into the rumor mill. The public's hunger for gossip about President Cleveland's wife, Frances, was so intense that reporters felt compelled to invent it, and her admirers caused near riots whenever she appeared in public. But Mrs. Cleveland never encouraged the phenomenon with even a single interview. She behaved with as much circumspection as Mrs. Zachary Taylor, whose public profile was so low she had to be depicted in the president's deathbed portrait with her head in her hands. None of the painters had any idea what she looked like.
The Media: "Important If True"
In the early years of American democracy, the salient fact about the newspaper business was that almost nobody made a profit at it. Most editors ran one-man shops, sold few ads, and usually boasted a readership of only a few hundred souls, almost all of whom were slow in paying for their subscriptions. "Subsisting by a country newspaper is generally little better than starving," said a New Jersey editor. Their brightest hopes lay in pleasing a successful politician and snagging a government printing contract or--better yet--a government job. Some of the best spots went to people who had printed the most outrageous stories. The editor who claimed that John Quincy Adams slept with his wife before they were married was made governor of Florida by the triumphant Andrew Jackson. Another who spread the story that Adams had been a pimp for the czar of Russia was made a senator and a member of Jackson's "Kitchen Cabinet." It's hardly surprising that most editors were ready, willing, and able to print any scandal about an opposition candidate that they could find or manufacture. Accuracy was not regarded as an important quality, anyhow. Editors of the era had no shame in admitting they were simply recycling rumors. ("Important If True" was a common headline.)
As technology improved and the population began to congregate in large cities, papers were able to make money from circulation and advertising. As long as production costs were still relatively low, even a small city could support a couple of profitable publications, along with a handful of fly-by-night competitors who might still be in the game of jockeying for political patronage. These smaller papers were the ones most likely to print shocking stories about government officials and election candidates. In 1881, for instance, a rumor went roaring through New York's state capitol in Albany concerning U.S. senator Thomas Platt. Platt's political enemies had discovered he was having an assignation with a woman in a local hotel, and arranged to watch the proceedings over the transom from an adjoining room. The Albany Argus promptly reported every detail: the conspirators' long vigil armed with "a stepladder, some whiskey, some crackers and cheese and cigars"; their three hours of amusement "taking turns mounting the stepladder and playing Peeping Tom"; the names of everyone involved except the woman. (It did report that she was "of engaging form but unpleasing features.") The other papers' more staid response must have sent readers racing out to look for a copy of the Argus. "A scandalous story affecting the private character of a prominent politician of this state was reported on the streets here and in Albany yesterday," announced the New York Tribune, with maddening discretion. "And full particulars were telegraphed to this paper, which we declined to print."
As newspaper chains grew and competition began to shrink in the twentieth century, the small, scurrilous papers died out and the surviving media tended to prefer less controversial family fare. That was the quiet era, bracketed by the Harding administration (extremely popular president makes love to his mistress in the Oval Office closet) and that of John Kennedy (extremely popular president makes love to rapidly revolving series of girlfriends just about everywhere but the White House press room). Newspaper editors, who were almost all men, found it distasteful to publicize the private misbehavior of politicians, who were almost always men, too. The periods in which newspapers did publish such personal revelations were generally marked by a strong female influence on the nation's social agenda. Women tended to focus on the problems of the family, and to regard male misbehavior in private life as a serious matter. Men tended to disagree.
Like all the sweeping generalizations, the one that said newspaper readers could not pick up much about politicians' private misdeeds during this period didn't always hold true, especially if an arrest or court proceedings provided an excuse to pass on a truly juicy piece of scandal. In 1951, the Birmingham News published virtually every word of Police Commissioner "Bull" Connor's trial on morals charges, including the detective's claim that he found a towel "reeking with semen" in the bedroom of the hotel room where Connor was found with his secretary. (The defense brought in a gynecologist to testify that semen didn't reek, but to no avail.)
But the arrival of television news forced the newspapers and magazines to stretch harder to give readers something they couldn't get from Walter Cronkite. By the 1980s, cable television, talk radio, twenty-four-hour news, and the Internet were creating an unprecedented competition for news consumers' attention. Because the old "scoops" of hard-news information could be transmitted so fast, the emphasis shifted to personality-driven stories that were harder for the competition to copy. With every public word recorded by TV and computerized services, reporters felt more pressure to learn the things that were hidden. When Gary Hart challenged them to follow him around if they thought he was cheating on his wife, the dare was hard to resist.
The Parties: "If so, mention it modestly"
People used to like to belong to a political party. It was one of the ways they kept track of their own identities in a shifting, mobile society. It also greatly simplified the process of being a good citizen. If you knew you were a Democrat, you voted the party line and you did not need to study the League of Women Voters candidate summaries just to choose between two state senate hopefuls.
Even back in 1828, there were party image-makers who tried to maximize their candidates' good points. ("Does the old gentleman have prayers in his own house?" asked one of Andrew Jackson's handlers, Martin Van Buren. "If so, mention it modestly.") Their followers read newspapers that favored their party's side of things, and talked politics with people who shared their views. It was like belonging to a fraternal lodge or drinking club. That was one of the reasons that nineteenth-century voters went to the polls like crazy. They also happily spread rumors about the opposition candidates. It was part of the civic duty of preaching to the political heathen and helping the forces of justice to triumph.
The parties started losing their moral underpinnings around the turn of the century, when muckrakers published exposes about the corruption of the big-city bosses. Middle-class voters bolted from their traditional Republican affiliations in the name of reform. Politicians were praised for putting principle above party, and the word got around that a really well informed citizen voted the man, not the party. Newspapers started to brag about being independent. Political gossip stopped being printed, and people stopped spreading it with quite as much avidity. Voter participation, unfortunately, plummeted.
A much bigger change occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when Vietnam and Watergate left Republicans and Democrats--particularly Democrats--so alienated from their party bosses that they took away the power to nominate candidates. Instead of the smoke-filled room, there was the clean, well-lighted polling place. Nominating a president became a strange ritual that began years before the election, as hopeful politicians trotted out their wares before an indifferent nation. The real selection process telescoped into a few hectic months early in the election year, when candidates the public had hardly begun to focus on raced through a packed schedule of primary elections, most of which were conducted almost completely through TV ads.
Table of Contents
The Road to Hillary's Lamp 1
Public and Private Sinning, 1776-1830 23
Gossip and Mutating Morals, 1830-1880 45
The Birth of the Celebrity Class, 1880-1900 71
The Anxiety of the Moment, 1890-1920 95
Political Gossip Goes Underground, 1920-1945 123
The Quiet Years, 1945-1964 155
The Deluge of Defining Events, 1964-1980 181
The Institutionalization of Gossip, 1980-1990 207
Endless Exposure, 1990-1999 233
Millennial Politics 277
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