Joe McGinniss

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Anthony Howard

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 679

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 Avenue. At times you almost feel sorry for Richard Nixon. There he is, as it were, at the centre of the stage trying to do his laborious best while these lago-type figures will insist on whispering across the footlights just how bad he really is….

We can all probably agree that that kind of thing is not very attractive—but how much of an insidious danger really is it? It seems to me that it is here that Mr. McGinniss is in some difficulty, and not least for personal reasons. If the television manipulators and the advertising technicians he is warning us against were as sinisterly professional as all that, then how did it come about that they were so naïve as to admit to all their secrets so obviously a bad security risk?… To say the least, the much cracked-up, high-powered Nixon staff does not seem in this case to have been anything like as vigilant as it might have been. (p. 329)

And were the Nixon media men anyway all that successful in marketing their own product? The main danger about Mr. McGinniss's wonderfully entertaining book is perhaps the cumulative impression it contrives to leave that somehow a lot of modern miracle men came along and succeeded in getting a total dolt elected President of the United States…. [It] strikes me as a fundamental misreading of what happened.

In the first place, those who packaged Richard Nixon for American television came dangerously near to blowing the whole thing…. But secondly (and much more important) was the real Richard Nixon—the original human article carefully disguised inside the expensive package—in himself so unsaleable anyway? Everything that has happened since his election strongly suggests that penny-plain he would have been just right for the mood of the country if only he had been put on the market just as he was. All that was wrong with him as a candidate was that the Madison Avenue boys prevented the American people from getting a real look at him.

And it is over this perhaps that Mr. McGinniss has performed his most ironic service. I am pretty sure that the various human details scattered throughout this book—not least those concerning Mr. Nixon's evident distaste for all the media men who surrounded him—will in the end prove to have done him more good than any of Mr. White's purple prose. (pp. 329-30)

Anthony Howard, "Nixon & the Madison Avenue Boys," in New Statesman, Vol. 79, No. 2034, March 6, 1970, pp. 329-30.

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