Why Joe McGinniss Changed Our Perception of Politics

Joe McGinniss

Why Joe McGinniss Changed Our Perception of Politics
| Published March 12, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

The first book by author Joe McGinniss was one of the central reasons I became interested—at the tender age of 12 years old—in the overlap between politics, advertising and electronic media. It was an expensive purchase at the time, especially since I was using only my allowance and neighborhood lawn care earnings. But for $5.95 (roughly equal to the value of a new vinyl record album in those days) I bought a copy of The Selling of the President, 1968 at a small bookstore in a nearby mall.

I consumed that book in a matter of days. I reread it again when I was 15, and again when I was 18. If that qualifies me as a nerd, well, guilty as charged. I still have that edition of the book, then already in its third printing.

McGinniss arrived on the national scene in large part because of the intimate descriptions of politics found in that book—a form of political reality which had less to do with handshakes and baby-kissing (the sort of stuff that Richard Nixon didn’t particularly enjoy anyway), and had more to do with the craftsmanship and care taken to make Nixon look good in front of the television camera. Madison Avenue and West Coast advertising was in its golden age, and Nixon and company weren’t going to make the same mistakes that had been made in 1960.

Eight years earlier, a couple of debate confrontations between a young vice president Nixon and the junior Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, had been about as decisive as any televised event could be in the arena of politics.

Though he was as qualified to become president as any man could be, Nixon came across as uncomfortable and ill-at-ease. On the TV screen that night he could be seen sweating; his eyes shifted nervously under heavy eyebrows; his dark five o-clock stubble shown through the hastily-applied makeup; his grey suit made him wash into the background; his skin color was pallid and powdery. Having banged his already injured knee into the door of his limousine moments before he entered the TV studio, he was forced to shift awkwardly at the podium to give relief to one leg. His appearance that night could not have been worse.

At the opposite podium stood Kennedy: handsome, poised; tanned; comfortable in his skin and tidy in his neatly-tailored dark suit; engaging; at ease at the podium, even witty. The contrast between the two men—powerful and effective in 1960—still resonates even to this day. Those who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon had won, but those millions who watched it on TV, an all-time record number of viewers that night, gave the win to JFK.

That debate forever changed American politics.

As a young political reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Joe McGinniss was assigned to cover the Nixon campaign of 1968. Nixon’s long comeback from the wilderness had been something of a miracle, and McGinnis sought to report on Nixon’s phoenix-like return from a different angle than the usual dispatches from the primaries and the typical fare found in most newspaper accounts. McGinnis asked for, and received, unusually close access to Nixon’s ad men, strategists and handlers. Among them was a very young Roger Ailes, the man who would later invent Fox News and shepherd it into national prominence.

McGinniss dug in to the convergence where the slick ad hucksters worked alongside the political operatives like John Mitchell, Herb Klein and Bob Haldeman. After his losses in 1960 and again in California in 1962 (Nixon ran, but lost to Governor Pat Brown), Nixon’s entourage realized that the former vice president would need to be repackaged. And that’s where McGinniss turned his observational skill and writer’s instincts.

A man of an older and more stoic generation, author Theodore White was by then the king of the magisterial epic—American presidential campaigns as a metaphor for the pageantry of Democracy in the post-War age. Landscapes rolling gently by train windows, the faces in crowds in places like Peoria, Boise, Evansville and Richmond, the colors of flags and signs and confetti at rallies, the panorama, the grandeur--that sort of thing.

McGinniss, representative of a new generation, saw the process in a different light, and wrote something far more intimate about the confluence of TV and politics than many were prepared to digest or understand. Given nearly unlimited access to the campaign, McGinniss spared nothing. The result was a book which was not always flattering of Nixon, and a complex rendering of the smart men around Nixon which—some have argued—seems a strangely prescient prequel to Watergate. Even the title of the book was meant to repudiate the magisterial series forged by Theodore White, whose handsome volumes had titles like The Making of the President, 1960, and so forth, every four years.  McGinniss' fly-on-the-wall retelling made more than a few people squirm, especially for its unflattering depictions of a deeply cynical business.

Even now there are those intimately connected to Nixon’s 1968 campaign wondering aloud how McGinniss bore witness to some of the scenes painted and some of the moments described. Likely, he employed a kind of cloaking device—a tool of invisibility which allowed him to fade into the wall, or perhaps become one with a studio lamp. No matter, politicians would rarely allow writers such access again, and the notable exceptions—Bob Woodward, for example—are few even to this day.

McGinniss also let loose a form of writing which endures and endears to this day. Like Hunter S. Thompson, McGinniss was deliberately careless in concealing his distaste for the grimy side of politics. His dislike of Nixon shows its colors many times throughout the book, but even conservatives and lifelong Republicans readily admit that the book is a must-read. William F. Buckley, Jr. chided McGinniss for the unscrupulous ambush the book becomes, but also commended it for being a smooth and entirely likeable read.  It remains entertaining, as well as uncanny in its dry, sometimes cynical observations. In chapter 12, McGinniss says that Nixon “depended on a television studio the way a polio victim relied on an iron lung.”

The book contains remarkable early glimpses into the inner workings of a major modern political campaign in the age of cinema verite, along with the complex power struggles, the egos and the infighting, and the tension between the hucksters and their counterparts among the old school political street-fighters. Many of the book’s players would go on to fame (or infamy): Ailes, Haldeman, Mitchell, Fred LaRue, Dwight Chapin, Kevin Phillips, Len Garment, Ron Zeigler, Patrick Buchanan, advertising men Harry Treleaven and Frank Shakespeare, former New York Herald-Tribune writer Ray K. Price. The appendix included verbatim scripts, media battle plans, and lengthy internal memos by Treleavan, Garment and others—memos peppered with so many references to Marshall McLuhan that the reader cannot help but chuckle at the unintended irony.

Once one starts reading the book, one cannot put it down.

McGinniss went on to write other books. Some were successful, others were not so. Perhaps his most widely known book outside of the rarified world of politics is Fatal Vision. In this book, McGinniss tells in chilling detail the story of the former Green Beret turned Army physician, Jeffrey MacDonald, who was accused of murdering his entire family in North Carolina. McGinnis was granted access to MacDonald and his entire legal team, as well as rare access to the crime scene itself. Dr. MacDonald’s attorneys concluded that McGinniss might be useful to them to craft a narrative of innocence, and, perhaps when the book reached publication, lead the public and the media toward a reversal of a potential guilty verdict.

Unfortunately for the charming and handsome Jeffrey MacDonald, McGinniss came slowly—sometimes painfully—to the conclusion that the doctor did in fact murder his family, and McGinnis said as much in the conclusion to the book. A bitter lawsuit ensued, followed by multiple documentaries, films, books, scores of essays, and a famous series of 60 Minutes investigations which stretched out over the decades. MacDonald has maintained his innocence, blaming the gruesome murders on a home invasion by drug-addled hippies and cultists. MacDonald has his defenders, including some writers who have been critical of McGinniss’ journalistic methods. The case remains in legal play even today. In 2012 the former Green Beret was given a hearing to consider new evidence.

Later, McGinniss wrote Blind Faith, another grisly crime story in which the author was given unusually close access to the parties involved, in this case the family members of a New Jersey businessman who was accused—and convicted—of hiring mob hit men to kill his wife in order to use the resulting insurance cash to pay off heavy gambling debts. He also wrote Cruel Doubt, published in 1991, which describes the chain of events surrounding a group of teenagers who, acting out particularly violent scenes from the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, commit murder.

McGinniss did not invent the genre, and most literary students and historians trace the style to Truman Capote and his groundbreaking In Cold Blood. But McGinniss forged deeper into the terrain than many previous crime authors had been willing to go, most of the other authors copying the form invented by Capote. Capote had also developed a personal friendship with the accused killers, and especially Perry Smith. McGinniss went further, forging the sort of partnership with MacDonald (and others) that many journalism purists felt crossed the line.

His much-awaited biography of Teddy Kennedy, The Last Brother, an unflattering look at the third Kennedy brother of their greatest generation, was roundly panned by critics upon its release in 1993.

Still, McGinniss was unfazed over the years by the complainers and the criticism. His writing style generally won the day with those who read his books, and they either became best sellers (Fatal Vision; The Selling of the President: 1968) or they fell flat. Years later he was paid a handsome advance to write a comprehensive book on the O.J. Simpson case. After sitting through the legal proceedings for months, he concluded that the trial was a made-for-TV farce. He declined to write about the case and famously returned the money to the publisher.  Some years after that, while writing about politics in Alaska, he got into a public dustup with Sarah Palin.

McGinniss was not a Boomer, despite his boyish appearance and the near total co-option of his writing and his persona by the Boomer Generation. He was born in 1942, which made him a War Baby, too young to be a part of the Greatest Generation's struggles, but young enough to give him ample leeway as a mentor to a much younger generation of writers and authors. Though his books brought him financial independence, he taught for many years at the exclusive, pricey Bennington College in Vermont. Among his students were late-Boomers Donna Tartt, Jill Eisenstadt and Bret Easton Ellis, all of whom would go on to moderate success as novelists—Ellis for books like Less Than Zero, which chronicled the empty, shallow lives and drug-addled culture of teens and young adults in Los Angeles in the 1980s (later made into a movie starring Andrew McCarthy and Robert Downey, Jr.); Tartt for The Little Friend (2002) and The Goldfinch (2013).

Many of McGinniss’ student successes became part of the 1980s fiction movement often dubbed “The Literary Brat Pack,” a cadre of young writers which included Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz. Ironically, fiction was never McGinniss’ bag, though the consensus among his students at Bennington was that he was an generous mentor and excellent teacher.

McGinniss died Monday, March 10 from complications of prostate cancer.