Most probably knew Joe McGinniss, who died yesterday at the age of 71, as the author of Fatal Vision, on the Jeffrey McDonald murder case (or his recent battle with Errol Morris over that). Or from the controversial Janet Malcolm book about his reporting on McDonald. Others never heard of McGinniss until he moved next door to Sarah Palin a few years ago, got slammed by Republicans, and wrote about it anyway.
But for me he will always be the guy who penned the astoundingly influential The Selling of the President, about the new world of “mad men” execs selling Richard Nixon to the world in 1968. Young Roger Ailes, then a producer for Mike Douglas’s daytime talk show, played a key role. This was a world barely probed in Theodore White’s “Making of a President” bestsellers in 1960, 1964 and 1968.
The McGinniss book, which I read in college, influenced all campaign coverage that followed, including my own two books exploring the real birth of that “selling”—to defeat Upton Sinclair in his race for California governor in 1934, and to get Nixon into the US Senate in 1950.
McGinniss revealed on Facebook several months back that he might be in the final months of a fight with prostate cancer, and now he has lost that fight.
It’s worth perusing his The Selling of the President for, among other aspects, it’s coverage of Ailes. Here’s one excerpt:
Paul Keyes sat in the chair that had been brought out for Richard Nixon. “It’s too loose. It’s got to have a solid back to it.” “Okay, I’ll take care of that,” Roger Ailes said, and he went slowly back to the control room and called the set designer and told him they needed another chair. The designer protested. “Do you want him to tip over?” Ailes said. “The back is loose. Do you want him to lean back and go over on his ass?” The designer suggested using an orange chair he had brought out earlier. “Goddamn it, no, we’re not going to use an orange chair. We’ve been through that … I said we’re not going to use an orange chair … well, fuck it, then. Forget it. I’ll get the goddamn chair.” He put down the phone and turned to Dolores Hardie, the assistant.
“Get Bob Dwan to get a goddamn chair. I told that creepy bastard of a designer as soon as he brought it out that we weren’t going to use an orange chair.”
It was four o’clock in the afternoon. Frank Shakespeare was worried about the studio getting too hot.
“Make sure you’ve got that handkerchief soaked in witch hazel,” Roger Ailes told someone. “I can’t do that sincerity bit with the camera if he’s sweating.”
Ailes then said, “This is the beginning of a whole new concept. This is it. This is the way they’ll be elected forevermore. The next guys up will have to be performers.”
McGinniss had actually met Ailes in 1967, when Joe was a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer. They remained friendly and this got him in the door at the Nixon campaign, which made Joe’s career. Here’s McGinniss in 2011 reflecting:
If Roger and I have ever agreed about anything having to do with politics or policy, I sure can’t remember it. From Richard Nixon to Rupert Murdoch, I think everyone he’s ever worked for has harmed this country in some way. I also think Fox News is an excrescence. And Roger knows that. Mutual candor is one aspect of our friendship. Roger’s terrific sense of humor is another: he is one of the funniest people I know. I don’t think I’ve spent five minutes in his company, privately, without laughing out loud at least three times at things he’s said.