The writer Joe McGinniss died Tuesday. He wrote “The Selling of The President 1968,” an unvarnished chronicle of the media packaging of Richard Nixon.
McGinniss wrote the book when he was 27, which is a very young age to have re-invented political reporting. The previous landmark political campaign book series, Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President,” was gumshoe reporting combined with elegiac prose lionizing the candidates and the American voter.
While lightly influenced by White’s books, McGinniss wrote his work with a bit of a twist: There was very little about the process that he liked or trusted.
Chronicling the re-invention of Nixon as a prepackaged, tightly choreographed candidate, McGinniss revealed there were very few words that Nixon uttered that were spoken outside of a controlled television studio with a hand-selected audience. The operation was supervised by Roger Ailes, now a renowned and notorious Fox News executive, who was barely 30 himself in 1968.
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McGinniss acted as a disingenuous ingenue, which was not instantly apparent to Ailes or Nixon. When the book came out and sold 900,000 copies, it was a sensation: no one had stripped the process to its most cynical roots.
After the massive success of “The Selling of the President 1968,” which made McGinniss the youngest-ever author to make The New York Times bestseller list, he wrote a subsequent book titled “Heroes,” where he interviewed men he felt were the heirs to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. To say he found them lacking would be charitable.
Part alcoholic memoir, part Remembrance of Things Past, “Heroes” ripped the guts out of the likes of Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and even John Glenn. In his view, they fell far short of his own hero, RFK. McGinniss wanted his heroes to be better than he was: they weren’t. They were human.
It got worse, but it was perhaps the most soul-searching, intellectually honest book that McGinniss wrote, for he bared himself as not much of a hero, either. He drank, left his wife and described an early midlife crisis that would rival Keith Richards.
I met McGinniss at a party in Lexington, Ky., in 2004. He was handsome, accessible and charming. He had written a book about convicted murderer Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald, who had killed his wife and two daughters and blamed it on LSD-addled hippies. McGinniss, in order to gain access to MacDonald, pretended to believe him. He then went off and wrote the blistering “Fatal Vision,” which split MacDonald wide open. MacDonald sued McGinniss and won a $325,000 judgment.
I discussed the case with McGinniss, who seemed oddly interested in my analysis of the book. I told him I had never believed MacDonald. Why, he asked?
“Because of his reported dialogue of the murderers (a long-haired blond woman was one of his concoctions). When McDonald said that they were chanting, ‘Acid is groovy, kill the pigs,’ like right out of a ‘Dragnet’ episode, or perhaps some bad short story in the Reader’s Digest.”
I complimented him on “Heroes.”
“Really?” he exclaimed. “No one brings that one up.”
It would be like someone complimenting J.D. Salinger for “Franny and Zooey.” McGinniss was proud of “Heroes,” but he was also regretful that he had turned out like that. He returned to other subjects, one of which was a book on Ted Kennedy, one of his fallen idols whom he atomized in prose. He communicated resentment that Ted Kennedy had lived and his hero RFK had not.
His last book, a biography of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, took a similar tack: calling her a fraud, a liar. McGinniss even rented a house next door to the Palins in Wasilla just to get into their heads. He did.
McGinniss died at 71, without a hero. His worldview must have been a burden, but, at an impossibly young age, his first book had redefined how we look at politics and media culture. Major political works like Timothy Crouse’s “The Boys on the Bus” and Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail 1972” followed, influenced heavily by McGinniss’ pioneering work.
Sometimes the pioneers are so damaged that it’s hard to imagine that their life was a pleasant journey. McGinniss’ eyes were wide open, but he saw no heroes. He just saw the lifeless stare of a sinful world.