'Fatal Vision' author Joe McGinniss dies at age 71

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 11, 2014 at 11:22 am •  Published: March 11, 2014
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NEW YORK (AP) — Joe McGinniss wasn't one to let a story tell itself.

Whether insisting on the guilt of a murder suspect after seemingly befriending him or moving next door to Sarah Palin's house for a most unauthorized biography, McGinniss was unique in his determination to get the most inside information, in how publicly he burned bridges with his subjects and how memorably he placed himself in the narrative.

McGinniss, the adventurous and news-making author and reporter who skewered the marketing of Richard Nixon in "The Selling of the President 1968" and tracked his personal journey from sympathizer to scourge of convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald in the blockbuster "Fatal Vision," died Monday at age 71.

McGinniss, who announced last year that he had been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer, died from complications related to his disease. His attorney and longtime friend Dennis Holahan said he died at a hospital in Worcester, Mass. Optimistic almost to the end, he had for months posted regular updates on Facebook and Twitter, commenting on everything from foreign policy to his health.

The tall, talkative McGinniss had early dreams of becoming a sports reporter and wrote books about soccer, horse racing and travel. But he was best known for two works that became touchstones in their respective genres — campaign books ("The Selling of the President") and true crime ("Fatal Vision"). In both cases, he had become fascinated by the difference between public image and private reality.

McGinniss was a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1968 when an advertising man told him he was joining Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign. Intrigued that candidates had advertising teams, McGinniss was inspired to write a book and tried to get access to Humphrey. The Democrat turned him down, but, according to McGinniss, Nixon aide Leonard Garment allowed him in, one of the last times the ever-suspicious Nixon would permit a journalist so much time around him. Garment and other Nixon aides were apparently unaware, or unconcerned, that McGinniss' heart was very much with the anti-war agitators the candidate so despised.

The Republican's victory that fall capped a once-unthinkable comeback for the former vice president, who had declared six years earlier that he was through with politics. Having lost the 1960 election in part because of his pale, sweaty appearance during his first debate with John F. Kennedy and aware of his reputation as a partisan willing to play dirty, Nixon had restricted his public outings and presented himself as a new and more mature candidate.

McGinniss was far from the only writer to notice Nixon's reinvention, but few offered such raw and unflattering details. "The Selling of the President" was a sneering rebuttal to Theodore H. White's stately "Making of the President" campaign books. It revealed Nixon aides, including Roger Ailes, disparaging vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew, drafting memos on how to fix Nixon's "cold" image and debating which black man — only one would be permitted — was right for participating in a televised panel discussion.

Historian David Greenberg wrote in "Nixon's Shadow," published in 2003, that McGinniss "sneaked in under the radar screen, presenting himself to Nixon's men as such an insignificant fly on the wall that they never thought to swat him away."

"If White was the voice of the liberal consensus, with its sonorous even-keeled wisdom," Greenberg wrote, "McGinniss was an emissary from the New Journalism, with his countercultural accents, youthful iconoclasm, and nonchalant willingness to bare his left-leaning political views."

Ailes, the chairman and CEO of Fox News, issued a statement Tuesday saying that McGinniss would "be remembered as a talented man."

"He changed political writing forever in 1968," said Ailes, who knew McGinniss for nearly 50 years. "We differed on many things, but he had a good heart. My prayers are with his family."

"The Selling of the President" was published in 1969, spent months on The New York Times' best-seller list and made McGinniss an eager media star. He quit the Inquirer and followed more personal interests. He wrote a novel, "The Dream Team," and the idiosyncratic "Heroes," a memoir that told of the breakup of his first marriage and romance with his eventual second wife, Nancy Doherty, and his failed quest for role models, among them author William Styron and Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.

In 1979, he was a columnist for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner when an argument without end was born: McGinniss was approached by MacDonald, a fellow California resident, about a possible book on the 1970 killings for which the physician and former Green Beret was being charged.

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