Thursday, 13 March 2014


My obituary of the journalist Joe McGinnis is in today's Guardian, and online (you can link to it here). McGinnis is an important figure on two fronts: The Selling Of The President 1968 might be said to have iniated the era where politics morphed into a dog and pony show for television, and where political journalism (particularly that of broadcasters) became dedicated to showing politicians were not as good at performing as the so-called commentators. Obviously this was not necessarily McGinnis' intention, and the moves to 'democratise' the system, moving it away from bosses in smoke-filled rooms to primaries and
'super Tuesdays' exacerbated this. But the sad truth is the revelations in McGinniss' book did nothing to stop the Nixon landslide in 1972, and the '72 campaign produced a number of classic bits of political new journalism, not least Hunter Thompson's Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail.

I would have liked to go into more detail (I did slightly, but I over-wrote the piece and it did need to be trimmed somewhere) about McGinniss actual path as a journalist. To an extent he followed the classic romantic path--huge success young followed by leaving the trade to write a novel. Dream Team was very revealing, not least in terms of the breakdown of his first marriage, a topic he returned to more journalistically in Heroes.

The move to true crime may have come about by chance, but again he was ahead of the curve, and Fatal Vision can be said accurately to have opened the floodgates for true crime genre. It became a sort of mini-franchise for McGinniss: the similar titles, the accumulation of access, the sometimes controversial conclusions (in Cruel Doubt, for example, the step son and his two friends accused of the murder were said to have been influenced by an addiction to playing Dungeons and Dragons).

I never bought Janet Malcolm's theses, first that McGinnis was somehow beyond the moral pale--but it is easy to look at The Last Brother as some kind of revenge against Teddy Kennedy for having been McGinnis' hero back in the Seventies. In that he reminds me Boston sportswriters, from Ted Williams' nemesis Dave Egan to today's Dan Shaugnessy, who possess a kind of urge to cut heroes down to size coupled with a very Irish sort of revenge gene.

The other side of Malcolm's argument was that there wasn't any definitive truth, a sort of structuralist excuse that doesn't quite work in the case of a murder trial. McGinniss may well have betrayed Jeffrey MacDonald's trust--was he justified by a honest belief in his guilt, or did he, as Erroll Morris suggests, try to bend things toconvince himself and us of that guilt? One thing that was lost in the obituary was the suggestion that MacDonald's story of a hippie house invasion was very similar to the Manson family's Tate-LaBianca killings, which had just happened.

Finally, as I mention, McGinniss came full circle with Rogue, whose major point may be that today politicians are somewhat smarter about allowing access. Its subtitle was Searching For Sarah Palin, and in a way it was another kind of return, if you look at his fourth book, Going To Extremes, as being a self for himself. But in writing Rogue, McGinniss became almost a parody of himself: he knew full well that Palin was a marketing construct whose selling would put Nixon's to shame, but he was denied the kind of access that had made his career in both The Selling Of The President and Fatal Vision. So he rented the house next door, and in effect issued an invitation to Sarah Palin to welcome him in. That, of course, never happened, and McGinniss was reduced to repeating the same kind of gossip that passes for online journalism in today's politics.

Of course the main irony was that Palin's selling to America was being orchestrated by Roger Ailes, now head of the 'fair and balanced' Fox News, the same Ailes who built Nixon in 1968, and whose cynicism and contempt for the electorate were made clear in that book. It makes you wonder what might have happened had not McGinniss instinct and Leonard Garment's naievite not come together, or Jeffrey MacDonald's trust not been so misplaced, or had the OJ Simpson trial, in which Simpson's defense was another exercise in marketing, but one to whose access McGinniss was denied, not turned out differently. Would McGinniss have been a different, or better political columnist, or a superior sports writer, as he later books suggest he could easily have been? Or indeed something more?

1 comment :

Hairman said...

I've meant to leave this comment for a while now. So here goes...

From a purely football (soccer) point of view, McGinniss wrote one of the most memorable books I've read on football - "The Miracle of Castel di Sangro".

Following the travails of a small team in the interesting world of Serie B in Italy, McGinniss was given ample inspiration to fashion a memorable book that took the reader into the midst of one hell of a crazy season.

I've bought countless copies for friends over the years, and whenever I've chatted about the book with strangers I've yet to come across anyone who's read it who thinks it anything less than a football classic.

A truly gifted writer.