Joe McGinniss L. E. Sissman - Essay

L. E. Sissman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.