Remembering Joe McGinniss

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, March 11, 2014 No Comment(s)

It was a crazy dream, as most dreams are. Jimmy Breslin was there and I had just read something he had written. I told him I did not understand a word of it, but I had to do some work of my own. I awoke. It was 4:30 a.m. The work I had to do was now obvious. Tuesday is the day this blog goes out, and it was on my dreaming mind. I went to the computer and Googled Jimmy Breslin. No news there. Then, I went to to see what the Philadelphia college basketball teams were up to. I read that Joe McGinniss had died, and then, I saw myself quoted. The Holy Spirit works in strange ways.
The quotes were from a 1983 piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine. One of the quotes was a retread of something from a prior article for Philadelphia magazine, written when McGinniss hit the big time with The Selling of the President 1968. I had followed him around New York, including a radio interview and lunch with the highly quotable sports journalist, Howard Cosell.
McGinniss was barely out of college (Holy Cross). He had given up a great job as an Inquirer columnist, in which he slavishly but effectively imitated Jimmy Breslin's style, to follow Richard Nixon's presidential campaign. His best seller savaged Nixon's cynical campaign, which carefully protected the candidate from serious reporters. It also put Roger Ailes on the map. He was a key player for the Nixon election team, and McGinniss manipulated the hell out of Ailes with candid behind-the-scenes quotes, which Ailes never expected to see in print. Nixon won, however, and hired Ailes – a big step toward Ailes’ current position as chairman of Fox News. And Joe McGinniss, at 26, was famous.
Today’s Philadelphia Daily News story took quotes from something written when Joe McGinniss' other big book, Fatal Vision, was hitting bookstores. McGinniss had several disappointing books after his first success. One of them was embarrassing. It was filled with personal confessions and self-pity about a sad childhood with heavy drinking parents, the breakup of his marriage and guilt over leaving his family, etc. Another book, about Alaska, was a good read, but had the bad luck to appear shortly after John McPhee’s classic Coming into the Country on the same subject. Fatal Vision promised to restore McGinniss’s reputation. It was a behind-the-scenes report on the sensational trial of Army Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald, found guilty of murdering his pregnant wife and two children. McGinniss had been approached by MacDonald to write the book, and McGinniss pretended to sympathize with an officer who was unjustly accused. He was given extraordinary access to MacDonald’s personal records, and an insider’s view of the defense team, which was wildly over-confident. But he soon was convinced the man was guilty, and so he wrote. It was big-time stuff and a perfect subject for Philadelphia, where he had first won fame. That was the point of “rising from the ashes of fame.” Joe McGinniss was back.
I had been given a chance to read the pre-publication proofs in New York and had spent a day with McGinniss at his home in Massachusetts. He emphasized how personally painful the book had been to write. At first, I did not realize why, but I would learn soon enough. My story appeared to be well-received. The Inquirer’s editors liked it, and the reaction from other newspaper people was excellent. I sent a copy to McGinniss, confident he would appreciate the great publicity in an important market. The book got good reviews and was quickly on the best-seller list. But the controversy surrounding the book continued for years. It involved highly publicized legal action and resulted in some condemnation of McGinniss for journalistically unethical conduct. But that was down the road.
What happened quickly was a near-frantic phone call from an Inquirer editor that interrupted a Saturday night dinner party. The paper had received a furious, rambling letter from McGinniss. It was crudely fashioned, as if the work of a madman, or a drunk. He accused me of multiple factual errors, particularly with regard to his personal life, including the drinking problems of his parents. It sounded like the prelude to a lawsuit. The editor needed to see me as soon as possible. Early the next Monday morning I was at the newspaper office, bringing the books that McGinniss himself had written that said so much of the stuff that now seemed to upset him. The editor was much relieved, and added, “What’s wrong with this man?”
What was wrong with him was that I had recognized what made the book so “painful” for him. He had identified with the man who murdered his family. I had written:
“At the time of the killings, MacDonald and McGinniss were almost the same age, married for about the same time. Both had two daughters, who were very close in age. MacDonald’s wife was recently pregnant with, the autopsy revealed, a boy. February 1970, the month of the crime, was the time McGinniss’s wife became pregnant with his son. It was also the month that McGinniss realized that he must leave his wife and children.”
McGinniss never said that was what set him off, but he calmed down, probably when Philadelphia turned out to be the only market where his book was a No. 1 best-seller. A few weeks after publication, he did a book signing in Philadelphia. My aunt attended, identified herself and said how much she enjoyed my Inquirer article.
“Great,” Joe McGinniss said cheerfully. “Say hello to Bernie.”
Money changes everything. And the Holy Spirit works in strange ways.

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