Journalist/author Joe McGinniss died unexpectedly on Monday, March 10. He’d been battling prostate cancer, but it was the pneumonia following chemo that took him away with shocking suddenness.
Everyone who knew him is reeling.
(I knew Joe through his wife, writer and editor Nancy Dougherty, who is a very dear friend of mine, a wordsmith-sister, so I am reeling and heartbroken too.)
If for some reason you don’t recall his name, what you need to know first is that Joe McGinniss changed journalism.
With his 1969 book “The Selling of the President,” about the marketing of Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential campaign, he blasted open what was possible in the world of political writing. With his beautifully composed, ferociously reported (and still quarreled over) “Fatal Vision,”” published in 1989 about the Green Beret doctor, Jeffery McDonald, who was accused of murdering his wife and two children, McGinniss advanced the form of the true crime narrative as literature.
After the news of Joe McGinniss’ death broke, the usual tributes and obits streamed to the surface. As is often the case, most do not seem to capture the man, but they at least list his formidable accomplishments, even if from a great distance. (This, by the AP’s Hillel Italie is probably the best of 40,000 feet obits.)
Atlantic Monthly columnist Andrew Sullivan’s essay on McGinniss is a welcome exception.
Here’s a clip from what Sullivan wrote:
Joe McGinniss was responsible not only for several books that are rightly understood as landmarks of journalism – he was also the case study of arguably the most famous essay about journalism, Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer.” He was a deeply curious and ferociously independent writer, compelled by the minutiae of the human comedy and riveted by the depths of human tragedy.
I think of him as some kind of eternal, unstoppable foe for Roger Ailes, whose media campaign for Nixon in 1968 presaged so much of what was to come – and still reins supreme – at Fox News. And yet Ailes and Joe were extremely close friends their entire lives and Joe would defend him – if not his network or politics – tenaciously as the years went by. That was how Joe was. Once he loved you, he loved you. And I was blessed by some of that love.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Joe – at the tender age of 26! – transformed political journalism with The Selling Of The President, the legendary expose of the cynicism of media optics in presidential campaigns – and, by the by, a lovely, ornery rebuke to the magisterial tomes of Theodore H White, as Ann Althouse notes. And the first thing to say is that the man could write. He couldn’t write a bad sentence. His narratives powered along; his prose as clear as it was vivid; his innate skill at telling a story sometimes reaching rare moments in non-fiction when you’re lost in what is, in effect, a factual novel.
But what I truly treasured about Joe – and I came to love him even though we only met a couple of times – was his dogged imperviousness to his peers or to establishment opinion. If he smelled a story, he would dig in, obsessively recovering its human truth. If others thought the story was irrelevant or non-existent, it wouldn’t affect him. His motivation, as it was with his first book, was to peel back the layers of image and propaganda and spin to reveal the reality. He did this with Jeffrey McDonald. And he did it with Sarah Palin….
About his book on Palin: as usual, Joe went where the story led him. Political columnist Dave Weigel, writing for Slate, has posted some of his memories of meeting with McGinniss when the author was researching the former Alaskan governor in her home state, and how unexpectedly Weigel’s source turned into a valued friend.
Weigel’s musings are a good read and give another small shard of insight into this irreplaceable author…journalist… father…husband…friend….who had so much more still to write.
Photo courtesy of JoeMcGinniss.net