In 1968, so the story goes, a 25-year-old aspiring journalist named Joe McGinnis overheard an advertising executive on a train report that his firm had acquired “the Humphrey account” for the forthcoming presidential election. “Until that moment,” wrote the Washington Post decades later, “Mr. McGinnis had not realized that presidential campaigns hired . . . advertisers to sell their candidates like a brand of soap.”
And the rest is history. Hubert Humphrey’s staff brushed him off, but the campaign of Humphrey’s rival, Richard Nixon, allowed McGinnis to tag along. The result was The Selling of the President 1968 (1969), an indignant account of the marketing of candidate Nixon, featuring candid observations from not-yet-famous names (Leonard Garment, Roger Ailes, etc.), which nicely played into the growing certitude, among journalists, that Republicans win elections not on issues but by deception. The Selling of the President 1968 became a huge bestseller and, three years later, a Broadway flop.
Which is one way of saying that, along with the legend of Joe McGinnis, who died last week at 71, there was an equal amount of mythology as well. The first myth, of course, is that if McGinnis overheard an ad man on a train, and if the ad man actually said what McGinnis reported (“In six weeks we’ll have him looking better than Abraham Lincoln”), then Joe McGinnis was a little less than he appeared to be to admirers and rather more like a typical twentysomething who sees the obvious (“advertisers . . . sell their candidates like a brand of soap”) and thinks he’s made a discovery.
Journalists seldom have greater admirers than their fellow journalists, and McGinnis certainly benefited from this all-too-human vocational quirk. Selling was greeted in the press as an instant classic, and at a tender age, McGinnis became accustomed to hyperbole (“Author of one of the best nonfiction books ever written”—Gene Weingarten, Washington Post) that would embarrass a James Boswell or Henry Adams. In fact, in assessing his career, it might be argued that McGinnis was more typical than not, since he never repeated the success of that first splash, although his attempt to reproduce Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood—a first-person account of a famous murder case, entitled Fatal Vision, based on interviews with the murderer—has its admirers (“As rigorous a work of nonfiction as there is”—Gene Weingarten, Washington Post).
The Scrapbook might even argue that McGinnis, for all the postmortem overpraise, is a case study in the pitfalls of premature fame, especially in journalism. The Selling of the President 1968 struck a nerve among his ink-stained colleagues because it spelled out, in humorous detail, what they didn’t like about Republicans in general, and Nixon in particular. McGinnis learned to translate newsroom sentiment into books. This might explain the embarrassing circumstances of his final work, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin (2011), in which he sought to capture the conventional wisdom on the subject by retailing jokes and old gossip, and in an act of supreme creepiness, renting the house next door to Palin’s family home in Alaska. It didn’t work, as even McGinnis’s admirers concede (“Thin and crappy and lazy”—Gene Weingarten, Washington Post).
Moreover, McGinnis’s middle phase yielded a judgment that proved as devastating as it was unexpected, and is probably final. The conceit of Fatal Vision (1983) had been that McGinnis, in order to gain the confidence of his protagonist, had professed belief in his innocence. Indeed, even though he was convinced that Jeffrey MacDonald had, in fact, killed his wife and two daughters, McGinnis persistently ingratiated himself with MacDonald throughout the process of researching and writing his book. When Fatal Vision was published, to extravagant notices, MacDonald felt betrayed, and McGinnis vindicated.
Six years later, however, Janet Malcolm reviewed the affair in the New Yorker, and in an essay entitled “The Journalist and the Murderer,” began with a famous observation:
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.
You don’t have to agree with Janet Malcolm about everything, or believe in the guilt or innocence of Jeffrey MacDonald, to perceive that she captured something of the essence of Joe McGinnis in those words, and by inference, what the public deplores in journalism. This does not apply to every journalist, of course, nor to journalism generally. But it might explain the appeal of Joe McGinnis to some journalists, and is probably what most of us will remember about him.