McGinniss, Joseph ("Joe")
McGINNISS, Joseph ("Joe")
(b. 9 December 1942 in New York City), journalist and writer whose book The Selling of the President, 1968, an exposé of the media strategy of Richard M. Nixon's presidential campaign, topped the best-seller lists in 1969 and forever changed public understanding of how politicians use the media to influence the electorate.
McGinniss, the only child of Joseph Aloysius McGinniss, a construction-specifications engineer who later opened a travel agency in a Manhattan hotel, and Mary Leonard, grew up in the affluent suburb of Rye, New York. Raised a Catholic, McGinniss was a solitary child who made up his own elaborate games and considered becoming a priest. He attended the Resurrection School run by the Sisters of Charity during his elementary years, and Archbishop Stepinac High School from 1956 to 1960, where he wrote for the school newspaper. After receiving praise from a teacher for an essay written when he was in the eleventh grade, McGinniss realized he might have a gift for writing.
He chose to pursue journalism as an avocation during his time in college and was a reporter and editor for the Crusader, the student newspaper of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, which he attended from 1960 to 1964. In the summer of 1963 he began working for the Port Chester Daily Item. In 1964, after graduating with a B.S. degree in English and being rejected by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, he went to work for the Worcester Telegram. McGinniss's career progressed quickly. After just nine months at the Telegram he became a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Bulletin. He married Christine Cook on 25 September 1965; they had three children before divorcing. He married Nancy Doherty on 20 November 1976; they had two children.
Within two years of his divorce from his first wife, McGinniss was writing a regular column for the Bulletin's competitor, the Philadelphia Inquirer. In those columns he commented on the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and the 1968 presidential election. Of his writing McGinniss has said that his goal is to "go someplace that the reader couldn't go … to give the reader the feeling of what it would be like to be there." He became known for his informed, insightful, and independent commentary on issues that were timely, if not controversial.
McGinniss stumbled across the lead for his first book, The Selling of the President, 1968, in June of that year. He had fallen out with the publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Walter H. Annenberg, over an editorial apology Annenberg published for a column McGinniss wrote stating that Robert Kennedy's assassination was a product of the violent nature of U.S. society. While cooling off on vacation, and working on a profile of sports personality Howard Cosell for TV Guide, McGinniss learned that a member of Cosell's carpool had landed the advertising account for Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign. Intrigued at the coupling of advertising and politics, McGinniss approached the campaign. "I had heard … [them] say they were going to make Humphrey into Lincoln. I thought it might be fun to watch." The Humphrey campaign turned McGinniss away, but the strategists for Humphrey's opponent Richard M. Nixon welcomed him. In fact, the campaign organizers allowed him to observe firsthand the process of packaging Nixon for the electorate.
McGinniss left his job at the Philadelphia Inquirer and for the next five months traveled with the Nixon organization. He gained intimate access to the highest level media-strategy meetings and attended tapings of commercials and hour-long panel shows with candidate Nixon. "This is the beginning of a whole new concept.… This is the way [presidents] will be elected forevermore. The next guys up will have to be performers." So predicted Roger Ailes, media strategist for Nixon's campaign. From interviews with the top media strategists, including Frank Shakespeare from the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), Harry Treleaven of the famed J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, and Ailes, a former executive producer of The Mike Douglas Show, McGinniss recounts the events and personalities involved with an authenticity that is both engaging and compelling. The Selling of the President, 1968 is supplemented with reprints of notes and memos from the media advisers and presents the media as "insidious" and "trite," the electorate as malleable and television-addled, and Nixon as a pragmatic and consummate politician.
McGinniss's account exhibited a timely cynicism and presented the American public with its first glimpse of the lengths to which Nixon would go to secure his political agenda. The book spent seven months on the New York Times best-seller list, four of those months in the number-one position. Critics were divided generally along political lines. Described as "witty and insightful," "a bit frightening," and a "hatchet job," it was noted for the "unobserved but overheard and intimately quoted Nixon." One critic even suggested that Nixon should hire McGinniss to manage his image.
At age twenty-seven McGinniss found himself a celebrity, and was pursued by publishers, theatrical producers, network-news producers, and broadcast executives to write on topical issues, write Broadway plays, anchor newscasts, and host radio talk shows. Instead McGinniss chose to write a novel. The Dream Team was published in 1972 and flopped. He returned to nonfiction with two works, Heroes (1976) and Going to Extremes (1980), which were much admired by critics. In 1983 McGinniss published yet another work that put him on the best-seller list, Fatal Vision, a true crime recounting of the murder of a young pregnant mother and her two daughters. He continued in this genre with the best-sellers Blind Faith (1989) and Cruel Doubt (1991). His 1993 biography of Teddy Kennedy, The Last Brother, was also a best-seller, though critics considered it not up to McGinniss's standards in his previous work. The Miracle of Castel di Sangro (1999) is a nonfiction work that capitalizes on his passion for soccer.
McGinniss is discussed in Barbara Lounsberry, The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction (1990). Articles and reviews about McGinniss and his writing are in Life (10 Oct. 1969), New Republic (11 Oct. 1969), The New Yorker (27 Dec. 1969), and Holy Cross Magazine (winter 2002).
Annmarie B. Singh