Farewell to Joe McGinniss, who changed political coverage

     In this Sept. 3, 2010 file photo, author Joe McGinniss, who is working on a book on former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, poses for a photograph at the home he's renting next to Palin's home in Wasilla, Alaska. McGinniss, the adventurous and news-making author and reporter who skewered the marketing of Richard Nixon in 'The Selling of the President 1968' and tracked his personal journey from sympathizer to scourge of convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald in the blockbuster 'Fatal Vision,' died Monday, March 10, 2014, at age 71. McGinniss, who announced in 2013 that he had been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer, died from complications related to his disease. (Dan Joling/AP Photo, file)

    In this Sept. 3, 2010 file photo, author Joe McGinniss, who is working on a book on former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, poses for a photograph at the home he's renting next to Palin's home in Wasilla, Alaska. McGinniss, the adventurous and news-making author and reporter who skewered the marketing of Richard Nixon in 'The Selling of the President 1968' and tracked his personal journey from sympathizer to scourge of convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald in the blockbuster 'Fatal Vision,' died Monday, March 10, 2014, at age 71. McGinniss, who announced in 2013 that he had been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer, died from complications related to his disease. (Dan Joling/AP Photo, file)

    We end this week with a hat tip to Joe McGinniss, the first journalist to pull back the curtain and expose the advertising artifice of a modern presidential campaign.

    McGinniss, who died on Monday, was a 26-year-old columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer when Richard Nixon’s image maestros gave him the OK to watch and record their manipulations. In today’s parlance, McGinniss was fully embedded. His subsequent best-seller, “The Selling of the President 1968,” seems rather tame today – candidates are cynically packaged! impressions trump policy positions! – but his inside reporting was revelatory in its day.

    In 2014 we simply assume that journalists will fact-check political ads, profile the people who make the ads, and reveal the real person behind the candidate’s image. That kind of coverage has long been de rigueur only because McGinniss made it so. The irony, of course, is that these days it’s increasingly difficult to pull back the curtain – precisely because campaigns saw what happened when McGinniss was allowed inside. No way the image teams will ever let that happen again.

    Today it’s unimaginable that any journalist would get McGinniss’ deal. As he recalled in a new introduction to his book, he initially approached the Madison Avenue guys who worked for Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey. They told him, “Do you think we’re crazy? Nobody is supposed to know about this stuff.” But Nixon’s image aides were far more congenial. In McGinniss’ words, they “didn’t see what harm I could do because I was just a naive kid from Philadelphia of whom no one in the big leagues of journalism had ever heard.”

    He wound up embarrassing them, by simply writing about what he saw.

    Nixon was a deeply polarizing figure, saddled with a dark and paranoid personality (which would later destroy him in the Watergate scandal), nursing grievances he had accumulated during his losing ’60 campaign and his losing ’62 California gubernatorial campaign. His ’68 image team was determined to craft a more pleasing Nixon, in part by shielding his exposure to the print press and spontaneous public settings.

    So the New Nixon did a lot of his campaigning in TV studios. On 10 occasions, in 10 key media markets, his aides staged one-hour broadcasts that featured Nixon taking questions from carefully selected real people. This way, Nixon could come off as sage, mature, and low key.

    Granted, McGinniss was hardly the first to chronicle image manipulation in politics – even though, on occasion in the book, he breathlessly suggests that he’s discovered something brand new. Historians have long referenced the 1840 campaign, when William Henry Harrison was advertised in pamphlets as a humble-roots guy who was born in a log cabin; in truth, Harrison was born affluent on a Virginia plantation.

    But TV in the late 1960s was qualitatively more powerful than pamphlets – as Nixon’s image maestros well understood. As they pointed out in a memo (amazingly, they gave this memo to McGinniss), the goal was to replace Nixon’s coldness with “sense of warmth….It can and should be done subtly, naturally – and this is one of the great advantages of the TV medium, which is a close-up medium, in a relaxed setting….Here the warmth does come across – in facial expressions, in the inflections of voice, in the thoughtful exposition of a problem in human terms and in a low-key manner.”

    Hence the Nixon studio campaign. Even today, the stuff from McGinniss’ embedded notebook is a kick to read.

    Take, for instance, Chapter 8, which details the preparations for the Nixon TV show in Philadelphia. The producer says that on this particular panel, “we definitely need a Negro. I don’t think it’s necessary to have one in every (show), no matter what our ethnic experts say, but in Philadelphia it is….And goddamn it, we’re locked into the (Negro) thing anyway. Once you start it’s hard as hell to stop, because the press will pick it up and make a big deal out of why no Negro all of a sudden.”

    A local Republican in the room tells Nixon’s producer, “I know one…He’s dark. It will be obvious on television that he’s not white.”

    The producer says, “You mean we won’t have to put a sign around him that says, ‘This is our Negro?’ Fine. Call him.”

    Later that morning, the producer nearly said yes to another prospective panelist – until somebody said, “He’s a Negro.” To which the producer said, “Oh, s—, we can’t have two of them. Even in Philadelphia.”

    Some McGinniss’ critics have blamed “The Selling of the President” for making the media and the electorate more cynical about presidential politics. But it’s wrong to blame the messenger for quoting the true cynics, the manipulators behind the curtain. Here, again, is Nixon’s TV producer:

    “Let’s face it, a lot of people think Nixon is full. Think he’s a bore, a pain in the ass. They look at him as the kind of kid who always carried a bookbag. Who was 42 years old the day he was born. They figure other kids got footballs for Christmas, Nixon got a briefcase and he loved it. He’d always have his homework done and he’d never let you copy. Now you put him on television, you’ve got a problem right away. He’s a funny looking guy. He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight and he jumps out in the morning with his suit all bunched up and starts running around saying, ‘I want to be President.’ I mean this is how he strikes people. That’s why these shows are important. To make them forget all that.”

    So said Nixon’s TV producer – a young hotshot named Roger Ailes. Now the chairman of Fox News.

    Thanks, Joe!

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

     

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