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Remembering Joe McGinniss, chronicler of presidential image making [Commentary]

In the history of presidential campaign books, Theodore H. White's "The Making of the President" series in the 1960s set the standard for campaign books to follow. He combined unique access and a sweeping view of the process to help voters judge the candidates and understand the quadrennial exercise as well.

Teddy White was a pleasant and avuncular figure who gained that access through a combination of fairness and sympathetic schmoozing. It was once said, disparagingly, that Mr. White was the kind of reporter who could always go back to his sources, meaning he never gave offense to them in what he wrote.

That never could have been said of the other most prominent campaign chronicler of the time, Joe McGinniss, who died Monday at age 71. His best-selling peek into the inside of the 1968 campaign of Richard Nixon, called "The Selling of the President," was itself an inside job by the then 26-year-old former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who functioned as part of the Nixon team.

Another up-and-coming television luminary named Roger Ailes, who now runs the Fox News television empire, produced Nixon's TV shows, and young Mr. McGinniss as a low-level staffer imposed himself as the fly on the wall. He sat in on the private early planning and public relations machinations designed to put the best face on a cunning candidate already known widely from earlier behavior as "Tricky Dick."

The book's jacket boasted that "around the clock, day by day, (Mr. McGinniss) lived with the technicians, ghost writers, experts, and pollsters," gathering a treasure trove of revealing information. It laid naked in the most damaging way the calculations that enabled Nixon to navigate the political and personal pitfalls in dealing with the new challenges of television that had done him in during his first presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy in 1960.

In the opening chapter, Mr. McGinniss captured a wary Nixon taping a television commercial and doing some directing of his own. "Now when we start," Nixon says, "don't have anybody who is not directly involved in this in my range of vision. So I don't go shifting my eyes." And a moment later, of distracting still photographers: "Are they stills? Are they our own stills? Well, then, knock them off. Can them. We've got so many goddamned stills already."

Throughout the book, a host of similarly insightful verbal snapshots caught Richard Nixon as he really was, as opposed to how his professional image-shapers strove to present him. It was not that candidate Nixon alone engaged in such contrivances; catching him in his own words was what reinforced the "Tricky Dick" rap on him.

Mr. McGinniss, in analyzing the Nixon he saw up close, wrote of the 1960 defeat: "He failed because he had no press to lie for him and did not know how to use television to lie about himself. The camera portrayed him clearly. American took its Richard Nixon straight and did not like the taste."

So, the author wrote, the candidate gathered around him advertising specialists who could shape him as a more digestible product. Mr. McGinniss got hold of and printed long and detailed memos on how Nixon should look, stand, be lighted. There were conflicts within the campaign between the pure politicians and the television experts, and Mr. McGinness showed how the latter prevailed, with Nixon going along with them, despite his occasional comments on how image didn't matter.

"The Selling of the President 1968" turned out to be more revealing about Richard Nixon as well as about the changing nature of presidential campaigns and how they were reported thereafter, than did any of the laudable Teddy White series that covered the 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972 campaigns.

Mr. McGinniss was sometimes criticized as a fox in the chicken coop, but he certainly got the goods on the image makers. He later wrote other books about which he was accused of flying under false colors, or being just an old-fashioned snooper, as in an unauthorized book on Sarah Palin after moving next door to her in Alaska. Unlike Teddy White, he definitely was not one who could always go back to his sources.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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