Remembering Joe McGinniss and the Selling of the President 1968

Screen shot 2014-03-12 at 4.08.09 PMBy Jack Limpert

The obituaries on writer Joe McGinnis focused a lot on his 1983 book, Fatal Vision, but for people in politics and the media his 1969 book, The Selling of the President, was his bombshell. Theodore White had started his Making-of-the-President series in 1960 and 1964, taking readers behind the scenes in presidential campaigns, but McGinniss opened lots of eyes with his colorful retelling of how candidate Richard Nixon was marketed to the voting public in 1968.

From Matt Schudel’s obituary in today’s Washington Post:

In 1968, Mr. McGinniss overheard an advertising executive say that his company had acquired the “Humphrey account.” Until that moment, Mr. McGinniss had not realized that presidential campaigns hired teams of advertisers to sell their candidates like a brand of soap.

When Democratic candidate Hubert H. Humphrey’s handlers turned down Mr. McGinniss’s request to peek behind the scenes, he approached the Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon. Nixon’s people agreed to let him into the inner sanctum.

“This is the beginning of a whole new concept,” said one of Nixon’s top imagemakers, Roger Ailes, who later became the head of Fox News. “This is the way [presidents] will be elected forevermore. The next guys up will have to be performers.”

“The Selling of the President 1968” became a runaway bestseller when it was published in 1969 and was later made into a Broadway play.
In 1968, I had just arrived in Washington as a Congressional Fellow, a program run by the American Political Science Association that brings journalists and political scientists to DC to spend a year working on Capitol Hill, learning how Congress really works. The fellows are expected to go back to where they were before the fellowship—all the political scientists went back to their teaching jobs but most the journalists—me included—stayed in Washington. It’s often said that most journalists see a fellowship as the best way to find a new job.

A Congressional Fellow is expected to work half the year in the office of a Senator, half the year in the office of a House member, and it’s up to the fellow to make the connection. With 1968 an election year, I figured the most excitement would be in the office of a Senator running for President so I first went to the office of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was going to run an anti-Vietnam war campaign against President Lyndon Johnson in the Democratic primaries. At McCarthy’s office in the Hart Senate Office Building I couldn’t get by the receptionist. An aide came out to say they didn’t want a Congressional Fellow.

I then went to the office of New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who it appeared also might challenge President Johnson. After an interview with Joe Dolan and Frank Mankiewicz, two of RFK’s aides,  I got a call a few days later telling me that another journalist-fellow, Hugh McDonald from Newsday in New York, wanted to work in RFK’s office and they were taking him.

Next up was Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who had an office in the Hart Senate Office Building because the Vice President casts a deciding vote to break a Senate tie and thus has an office on Capitol Hill. Norman Sherman, the Vice President’s press secretary, agreed to take me on as a fellow, probably because I had worked for UPI in Minneapolis and had a few Minnesota ties.

That was in December 1967. Working on the staff of the likely running mate with President Johnson in November 1968 looked more interesting than a  routine Senate office but not as exciting as McCarthy or Kennedy. And for the first three months in the Vice President’s Senate office, I mostly sent telegrams to groups which had invited the Vice President to speak at a dinner but he wasn’t going to do it. A typical political job: Say no but send a telegram full of praise for the organization that can be read to the audience at the dinner.

Then McCarthy won 42 percent of the vote in the March 12 New Hampshire presidential primary, Robert Kennedy entered the race, and on March 31 President Johnson announced he wouldn’t run for re-election, opening the door for Vice President Humphrey to be the Democratic nominee. By early April I was  out on a presidential campaign, riding the writing press plane with Merriman Smith, Walter Mears, Jack Germond, Bob Novak, and David Broder.

Okay, enough history. The campaign was a great experience but Nixon narrowly defeated Humphrey in November 1968.
When I read today’s Post obit on Joe McGinniss, I e-mailed Norman Sherman, now living in Tucson, to ask if he had been the Humphrey staffer who wouldn’t let McGinniss shadow the campaign. His answer: “I think it may have been me in consultation with Bill Connell. I can’t imagine who else it could have been, unless McGinniss went to Larry O’Brien, although I think that is not likely.”

Then he added:  “Campaigns generally do reflect their principal. Humphrey was open, cheerful, and a bit chaotic. I think that defined our campaign and staff. Nixon was devious, secretive, duplicitous and his staff and campaign reflected his ‘values.’ McGinnis might have found us dull and certainly had better material with Nixon.

“In 1964, novelist Saul Bellow, an acquaintance of Humphrey from their University of Minnesota days, showed up in Atlantic City and wanted to follow Humphrey everywhere during the convention and listen to every phone call. I thought that was a bargain with the devil and urged Humphrey to turn him down. He did.”
McGinniss and McCarthy in the  1970s: I didn’t meet Joe McGinniss in 1968 but in 1976 worked with him on a long Washingtonian excerpt from his book Heroes. Here’s how we described the excerpt: “Joe McGinniss searches for the American hero in the minds of Eugene McCarthy, John Glenn, William Buckley, William Westmoreland, Ted Kennedy, and himself.”

In 1968, I wasn’t able to meet Eugene McCarthy but in 1977 worked with him on a Washingtonian article, “A Political Bestiary.” Here’s an example—his description of “Viable Alternatives”:

Distinguishing between the Viable and the Non-Viable Alternative is a formidable challenge. It is comparable between poisonous and non-poisonous mushrooms.

Non-Viable Alternatives, as a rule, are not difficult to find. They usually hang around, hoping to be noticed. They sit with arms folded and will not be budged. They tend to be stumbled over.

Many Viable Alternatives are short-lived. An alternative that is viable one day may be dead the next day. On the other hand, a change in climate, especially of political climate, may cause the revitalization of a dead or torpid alternative.

Little need be said of the third variety, the Unthinkable Alternative. Using the CIA to pull the whiskers of a foreign leader is an Unthinkable Alternative. The best that can be said of Unthinkable Alternatives is that the are regularly thought about.

Alternative experts are distinguished by their language. Like lawyers and foreign policy experts, they say things such as “Yes, but” or “either/or”  or “On the one hand and then on the other. ” Alternatives meet,  only one can survive. “Both/and” alternatives, on the other hand, can live together.

Viable Alternatives, if not  recognized and noticed, will often lie around making reproachful sounds and saying something that sounds like “I told you so.”



Speak Your Mind