Joe McGinniss Essay - Critical Essays

McGinniss, Joe


Joe McGinniss 1942–

American nonfiction writer, novelist, and journalist.

McGinniss has gained prominence for his nonfiction books on subjects of current interest. His work is based on extensive research and personal involvement. For instance, Fatal Vision (1983), his recent best-seller, concerns the trial of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Green Beret and "all-American boy" who was accused of murdering his pregnant wife and two small daughters. McGinniss worked closely with his subject, living in MacDonald's California condominium with access to his private papers and records. The result is a comprehensive rendering of the events which led to MacDonald's conviction in 1982.

McGinniss's first book, The Selling of the President 1968 (1969), exposes how Richard Nixon's political promoters used television to remake his public image. McGinniss gained behind-the-scenes knowledge of the Nixon campaign by presenting himself to Nixon's promoters as a student who was researching a scholarly thesis on the role of the electronic media in a political campaign. The Selling of the President 1968 brought McGinniss instant fame; the strenuous speaking tour which followed provided material for his only fictional work, The Dream Team (1972). In this novel McGinniss presents a self-portrait in the protagonist, a best-selling author who tires of the book-promoting circuit. Heroes (1976), a nonfictional account of McGinniss's search for contemporary heroic figures, reveals how deeply the success of his first book and the pressure to maintain that level of achievement affected McGinniss. Although he interviews such notable figures as Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Daniel Berrigan, and Arthur Miller, Heroes is more an attempt to understand his own confusion and loss of fame than an explanation of the lack of contemporary American heroes.

McGinniss acknowledges that in writing Heroes he gained a deeper understanding of himself and was able to move on to less personal material in his next two books, Going to Extremes (1980) and Fatal Vision. McGinniss lived in Alaska for two years in order to write Going to Extremes, which explores why people move to America's last frontier and how they cope, or fail to cope, with their isolation.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

John Osborne

[The Selling of the President 1968] is the best thing that's happened to Richard Nixon since somebody told him to stop wiggling those fingers. The author, Joe McGinniss, has done the President the immense and obviously unintended favor of showing him to be the normal, temperish, profane, vulnerable adult male that his spokesmen at the White House keep insisting he isn't. They are under the illusion that Mr. Nixon is best served by making him out to be superhumanly calm, beyond disturbance—a Presidential potato…. Joe McGinniss informs us—and accurately, I am told by some of the men who figure in this book and who still work for Nixon—that he wasn't like that during the campaign last year….

[The] campaign staffers who managed the Nixon TV effort last year would have saved themselves a lot of pain and deprived us of the most interesting account yet written of the 1968 race for the Presidency if they had troubled to check on the beguiling young man (aged 26) who presented himself to them in June. As they recall it, he said that he wanted to research and write a studious, philosophic account of the role of the electronic media in modern Presidential politics. No quotes; nothing that would embarrass anybody; a book, they were led to expect, that would deal in soporific generalities and take them and their expertise with stultifying gravity. (p. 26)

I am supposed, I gather, to be frightened by the evidence … that enormous thought and effort went into remaking Richard Nixon for television and into projecting an image so different from "the real Nixon" as to constitute a massive fraud upon the electorate…. Well, after reading and rereading the McGinniss account, I am reassured. It didn't work. All of that effort, all of those millions spent for television accomplished—what? Essentially the same Richard Nixon whom I followed in person around the country came across to the country through the tube…. It is for the unobserved but overheard and intimately quoted Nixon that I value the McGinniss account. It is useful to know that the President has a horror of psychiatrists … and that he curses when he's angry. Whatever we have in the Nixon Presidency, we don't have a potato. Maybe Nixon should hire Joe McGinniss. (pp. 27-8)

John Osborne, "Nixon through the Tube," in The New Republic, Vol. 161, No. 15, October 11, 1969, pp. 26-8.

L. E. Sissman

[Joe McGinniss] has written a sensationally but, I'm afraid, aptly titled book about … [a] new phenomenon in American politics. "The Selling of the President 1968" … is his insider's account of how a group of skillful advertising and television specialists engineered Richard Nixon's television campaign last year….

[McGinniss] has written an admirably clear and brief account of the whole Nixon television campaign, from its beginnings in philosophical position papers largely inspired by the disjunctive éclaircissements of Marshall McLuhan to its telethonic climax in Los Angeles on Election Eve. It indicates that the chief intent of the television advisers and technicians was to replace the baleful image of the Old Nixon—cold, distant, minatory, punitive—with a bland and casual new one. (p. 57)

In developing his story, Mr. McGinniss also develops the characters of the Nixon people with considerable skill; we understand both the mechanics and motivations of the campaign and the psychology of the men who ran it. As a bonus, we get a set of dramatic and ludicrous incidents that rise above the level of anecdote because the participants are people we already know and understand. This novelistic method adds a good deal to the book, and so, conversely, does a set of internal memos and campaign documents. My only serious reservation is that Mr. McGinniss, whose repugnance at the distortions of the image-making process is abundantly evident, sometimes goes beyond legitimate editorial comment to speculate moralistically about his characters and their actions, both of which surely speak clearly for themselves…. A smaller cavil is that McGinniss now and then writes portentous short sentences in portentous short words, in the manner of Jimmy Breslin or an ad for Jock. Nonetheless, it's a good book. (p. 58)

L. E. Sissman, "Television Makes the Man," in The New Yorker, Vol. XLV, No. 45, December 27, 1969, pp. 57-8.

Anthony Howard

A very strange thing happened in the American publishing world last autumn. As the summer ended Mr. Theodore White—that historian laureate of US presidential elections—produced his customary reverential account of the previous year's campaign [The Making of the President 1968].

Mr. White's book slowly and surely began its climb up the best-seller lists….

But then something very inconvenient occurred. A slim volume—with its title clearly an ironic crib from Mr. White's—suddenly made its appearance on those same shelves on which The Making of the President 1968 had previously been standing in isolated majestic splendour…. In the very first week in which it was published, The Selling of the President showed The Making of the President a clean pair of heels in the popularity stakes—and it has never looked back since….

Mr. McGinniss's book is primarily about the television and advertising men who worked on the Nixon presidential campaign—and anyone looking at them at the time who thought (as I did) that they were stern, unbending fellows had clearly got it wrong. In private, it turns out, they sang like canaries….

What plainly most offended Mr. McGinniss was that even Mr. Nixon's closest television advisers accepted the future President as a hollow man—as someone whom they had to fill up with some synthetic stuffing if they were ever to get him elected. Thus far I find it easy enough to agree with him—indeed, if one message comes loud and clear through every page it is of the total, absolute cynicism of the media men of Madison...

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Joe Flaherty

[In The Dream Team, Joe McGinniss] has chosen the world of the racetrack as his motif. When the muses are calling the parade to post, he sprints along at a pretty snappy pace. When he deals with the problems of a successful writer whose career and marriage are collapsing, the going gets as sloppy as a rainy Wednesday at Aqueduct.

The book opens with a prologue concerning two young men who are planning a tour of Southern tracks. The narrator-hero (later to become the best-selling author) goes back in time and convincingly documents his love for the ponies…. So far, so good. The reader gets a hint he might be in for one of those hardboiled treats James M. Cain used to serve up….

The story now shifts abruptly to a Saturday in San Francisco. The writer is there on tour—plugging his best seller with his bankroll soaring but his soul descending. He forms a three-person parlay with an aspiring female journalist named Jennifer and a talk-show host, Barnaby Blaine. Barnaby's real avocation is touting horses, with enough paraphernalia to make the Rand Corporation envious. (p. 34)

Jennifer is one of those dismally platitudinous love-children who seem to be serving as beacons for disgruntled older men in literature these days. (pp. 34-5)

The book starts moving again after the trio head for Hialeah. McGinniss builds a surrogate father-son relationship between Blaine and the writer,...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

The message of Joe McGinniss's first novel, "The Dream Team," is to stay away from fast women and slow horses, but the message isn't what matters here. What matters here is how Mr. McGinniss succeeds in holding our interest through a six-day binge in Miami while old Barnaby tries to handicap the horses at Hialeah, while young Jennifer tries to clutch life to her breast and while the young narrator of their adventures tries to enjoy the fruits of both activities.

The young narrator of "The Dream Team" is an author on tour promoting his best-selling book, while his wife and children languish back home in the East. Though his story is a fantasy, we might as well think of him as Joe promoting his first...

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John Spurling

I enjoyed The Dream Team so much that I didn't care whether it was naturalistic or not. Although it's a first novel, its author, Joe McGinniss, is already well-known for his The Selling of the President and he has disarmingly made the novel's hero/narrator a best-selling author…. Joe McGinniss tells his story nimbly—the matter is light and he keeps the tone light—but it is above all, perhaps, an excuse to communicate his enthusiasm for horse-racing and as such, in the end, almost more of a rhapsody than a farce. Certainly the most memorable scene is that in which the radio interviewer covers the floor of his hotel room with charts of racing form and goes to work with slide-rule and note-books,...

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Robert Sherrill

[In Heroes] Joe McGinniss says he's going to write about heroes and winds up writing mostly about himself and his problems. It's as though you were promised a full account of the kidnapping of Helen and the ensuing wars between Greece and Troy, but instead got only an entertaining account of a crap game inside the Trojan horse.

To be sure, McGinniss does go through the half-hearted ritual of seeking out some headliners—people like John Glenn and George McGovern and William Buckley and Daniel Berrigan—to see if he can find the yeast of heroism. He fails, not only because he has prejudged their failure in a very silly fashion ("The truth was, we did not have heroes anymore because there...

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Edward Hoagland

["Heroes"] is an interesting book which gets better as it goes along and gradually absorbs one once again into a familiar, very current form; the author's search for himself in the guise of fulfilling a much more merchantable assignment. In this case, Joe McGinniss was sent out with a lucrative contract to look for "the vanishing American hero." Even to begin with, for many reasons which he enumerates, he was pessimistic about finding such a beastie. Apparently he thinks there will never be any heroes again…. But the lucrative part was important to him because his first book, "The Selling of the President, 1968," had made him at 26 the youngest author ever to stand number one one the nonfiction bestseller...

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Chip Brown

McGinniss went north in November 1977 to see what sort of people were drawn to Alaska's extreme cold and isolated life where the land was "unchanged by the presence of man" and to explore the effects wrought by the boom economy. He suspected "the irresistible forces of big business, modern technology, and greed" were engulfing the wilderness, the ancient ways of the Alaska natives and the sense of limitlessness and possibility that lie at the heart of the frontier spirit. His purpose, as he set out, was to record "the last days of the last frontier."

To this grandiose assignment, McGinniss brought his formidable reportorial talents and his gliding, seductive writing style. Unfortunately [Going to...

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Paul Theroux

Mr. McGinniss was urged by friends, his curiosity and an issue of The National Geographic to spend a year in Alaska. He was told it was a "raw and wild and stimulating land…. It would … change, in some way, anyone who ventured there." But [in "Going to Extremes"] he reports more rawness than stimulation. After reading this book I feel a sledge of wild huskies couldn't drag me there. "Going to Extremes" is a serviceable title, but "Exit, Pursued by a Bear" would have described the book exactly. The bear was a grizzly sow with three cubs, and had Mr. McGinniss contemplating the topmost branches of a tree.

Mr. McGinniss does not moralize or travel with a theme in mind. Like John McPhee whose route...

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Mark Kramer

Going to Extremes is fine reading. It is thick with whole people, exotic landscapes, the nervous and constant curiosity of an adventurer who knows that the essence of place is more likely found while chatting in barrooms than while viewing the wondrous works of man and nature. (pp. 290-91)

McGinnis has a sharp eye for the rough and beery self-servers, the opportunistic but misfit wanderers who have swelled Alaska's population since the discovery of oil. The vignettes that fill the first sixteen chapters form an exquisite cinéma vérité whose unmoderated but soon patent message tells of the destruction of nature and culture by exploitative invaders.

There's not a...

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Eliot Fremont-Smith

One trouble with Joe McGinniss's true-crime anatomy, Fatal Vision …, is that it's 663 pages long. If the prose is a little wooden and the insights less than electric, that's like forever. This isn't the Rosenberg case. The book's great length testifies to the author's earnestness, as well as (perhaps) to commercial savvy; but it's insensitive to the enjoyment of true-crime.

Another trouble is that the central mystery of the book, the engine of suspense, is resolved early on—indeed, for reviewers, before the book even begins, in the publicity rap. The suspense is not whether Jeffrey MacDonald, back in 1970, actually bludgeoned, knifed, and ice-picked his pregnant wife and two little...

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Joan Barthel

"If we can prove that he did it," the Federal prosecutor told the jury at Dr. MacDonald's murder trial, "then we don't need to prove that he's the kind of guy who could have done it." Both these questions are probed in Mr. McGinniss's "Fatal Vision," along with an obvious third question: If he did it, in God's name, why? It's a long, compelling story, with a cast approaching thousands…. (p. 12)

Dr. MacDonald's personality emerges in chapters of taped reminiscence inserted throughout the chronological narrative. At first, this device seems cumbersome. The time fluctuations become confusing, and Dr. MacDonald's sexual preoccupations constitute merely a pathetic and basically boring case of...

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Josephine Hendin

Even murder should have dignity. How can we justify the passage of brutality from the police blotter or tabloid to the permanence of a book, except as a necessary step toward restoring meaning and individuality to the victims or the killers? Murder books such as Meyer Levin's Compulsion, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, or Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song have looked for meaning even in the unprovoked or random murder of strangers, furthering our awareness of murder as a crisis of morality, psyche, and culture. Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss is different. It takes a crime of intimacy rich in meaning and refuses it significance, coherence, or explanation. (p. 35)


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Ann Jones

Joe McGinniss, who had set out to chronicle a case of unjust prosecution [in Fatal Vision], changed his mind.

But he didn't tell MacDonald. How in the world could he? McGinniss had lived with MacDonald during his murder trial, and later, during one of MacDonald's preliminary stints behind bars, McGinniss lived in MacDonald's Southern California condo, drank his beer, watched his sunsets and went through his papers. He changed his mind—and went on writing. Consequently, we have here a kind of double story: the story of a killer being inched toward conviction by former supporters who have changed their minds and the story of a writer torn between conflicting moral obligations…. McGinniss...

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