Best-Selling Author, Joe McGinniss, Dies at 71
Joe McGinniss, Sr., American author known for his best-selling The Selling of the President 1968 which described the marketing of then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon, has died at the age of 71. He authored eleven works, including his last bookwas The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, an account of Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska who was the unsuccessful 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee.
McGinniss graduated in 1964 from the Roman Catholic-affiliated College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He became a general assignment reporter at the Worcester Telegram but left within a year to become a sportswriter for The Philadelphia Bulletin. He then moved to The Philadelphia Inquirer as a general interest columnist.
McGinniss became an overnight success when his first book, The Selling of the President 1968, landed on The New York Times bestseller list when he was twenty-six years old, making him the youngest living writer with that achievement. The book described the marketing of Richard Nixon during the 1968 presidential campaign. McGinniss stumbled across his topic while taking a train to New York. A fellow commuter had just landed the Hubert Humphrey account and was boasting that "in six weeks we'll have him looking better than Abraham Lincoln." McGinniss tried to get access to Humphrey's campaign first, but they turned him down. So he called up Nixon's, and they said yes."
The book was well received by both critics and the public, and has been recognized as a "classic of campaign reporting that first introduced many readers to the stage-managed world of political theater." It "spent more than six months on best-sellers lists, and McGinniss sold a lot of those books through television, appearing on the titular shows of Merv Griffin, David Frost, and Dick Cavett, among others."Conservative writer William F. Buckley, Jr., "assumed McGinniss had relied on 'an elaborate deception which has brought joy and hope to the Nixon-haters.' But even Buckley liked the book."
After the success of his book in 1968, McGinniss left the Inquirer to write books full-time. He next wrote a novel, The Dream Team. It was followed by Heroes, and Going to Extremes, a nonfiction account of his year exploring Alaska.
In 1979 he became a writer-in-residence at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Next came the McGinniss trilogy of true crime books, Fatal Vision, Blind Faith and Cruel Doubt. All three books were made into television miniseries. His 1983 account of the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case, Fatal Vision, was a best-seller. MacDonald sued McGinniss in 1984, alleging that McGinniss pretended to believe MacDonald innocent after he had already come to the conclusion that MacDonald was guilty, in order to continue MacDonald's cooperation with him. After a six-week civil trial that resulted in a hung jury, McGinniss's publisher's insurance company chose to settle out of court with MacDonald for $325,000. There was a later book about the MacDonald case by Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost called Fatal Justice that was a counterattack to Fatal Vision. Potter and Bost professed that MacDonald was innocent and that McGinniss's book was wildly inaccurate. They pointed to various parts of the book they claimed were untrue. For example, McGinnis proposed a theory that MacDonald killed his wife and children during a psychotic episode brought on by his use of diet pills. At the trial, McGinnis was forced to admit under oath that he had no hard evidence to support this theory and it may not have happened at all. Judge Ross split the money between Mildred Kassab and Dorothy MacDonald, the MacDonald lawyers, with Jeffrey MacDonald being allowed to keep the rest. Neither side filed an appeal. Judge Ross likened McGinniss's conduct to that of "a thief in the night," then he corrected himself, saying, "I guess a thief in the night wouldn't see you. He is more of a con man than he is a thief." In her book The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm used the McGinniss-MacDonald trial to explore the problematic relationship between journalists and their subjects.