Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The First Book I Kept From College

(EDIT: Hello, everyone from Crooks & Liars, thanks for visiting!)
I went for a Journalism degree at University of Florida, thinking of getting a career as a writer.  It didn't work out - reporting itself as a skill eluded me - but that's what I got my bachelors' degree (parents didn't back my request to switch majors to Poli Sci).

Of the textbooks I purchased over the semesters, when finished with the classes I traded most of them back in as I no longer needed them.  Except for a select few that caught my eye and became favorites for me to read and re-read as time went on.

One of the ones I kept - the first one, actually - was Joe McGinniss' Selling of the President.

The professor was using the book as an example of investigative, in-depth reporting covering a prolonged event: a Presidential campaign.  Specifically, Richard Nixon's 1968 return to politics as the Republican nominee.  But to me - with my interests in politics and history - there was a lot more to what it was about.

McGinniss was covering one of the key moments in the American political landscape.  During the 1960s, television had become the most powerful communications medium in the nation, surpassing radio which had been the dominant form since the 1930s and surpassing newspapers which had been the standard since the colonial era.  Before, most political campaigning relied on print ads, banners, crowds, speaking events, buttons, etc.  There'd been radio ads but they were easy to produce and ship out.  Television was different - a visual format that punished the unworthy and elevated the vain - and required a more cunning approach.  Advertising had by that time become a major profession using all of these mediums - print, radio, TV - to sell products: by 1968 with television leading the way, it was going to be used to sell politicians on a massive scale.

McGinniss lucked into the story by accident: his introduction to the 20th anniversary edition which I owned gave the details.  Hanging around New York City to interview Howard Cosell, a rising sports announcer, he met an advertising executive crowing about "landing the Humphrey account:"

The ad man was quick to explain.  Hubert Humphrey, who, now that Kennedy was dead, would almost certainly be the Democratic presidential nominee, had retained the agency to create a winning image for him... A week earlier, I'd been in Los Angeles because a leader of potentially heroic dimension had been slain. Now I was hearing an ad man say he'd be selling Hubert Humphrey to Americans like so much toothpaste or detergent... (p. xiii-xiv)

McGinniss, a young columnist for a Philadelphia paper who attracted the interest of a book publisher, conveyed the story he heard to the publishing agent meeting him later that week.  Intrigued, the publisher convinced McGinniss to pursue this as an investigatory piece for a book, one counter to the "official" historical tomes written by Theodore White (a respected author who wrote dry but impressive volumes about previous Presidential campaigns).  McGinniss even came up with a title mimicking White's usual Making of The President: this book about the ad campaign would be The Selling of the President.

When he followed up with the Humphrey ad exec to see about doing it, the ad man was obviously horrified. What he said was off-the-record, and above all the thing about advertising is how some ad men don't like revealing trade secrets: it's akin to pulling the curtain back on the All-Powerful Oz to realize people have been sold a humbug (Humphrey as the pro-war candidate in 1968 was not the most popular choice in his own party for the job).

McGinniss, stuck with an idea but not a subject to cover, decided to give Nixon's campaign - since at that time he'd sewn up the GOP nomination - a call to see if their ad execs were more accommodating.  He was put in touch with a Harry Treleaven, who "was most congenial.  He said he'd be happy to meet with me at ten o'clock..."

So that was it.  A dime in a pay phone was the genesis of this book...  He said he had no problem with that, but protocol required that such an arrangement be approved by his superior, Len Garment, whose own office was at Nixon headquarters.
That afternoon, Garment said no problem, with one stipulation: that nothing I observed would be printed until after the campaign was over.  I told him, as I'd told the man from Doyle Dane, that I would not even start writing until November and that it would be months after that before a book would be published...
...I asked Humphrey's people and they said no and I asked Nixon's people and they said yes...
As it was, when first published the book was widely perceived as being an attack upon Richard Nixon rather than a report on a very nearly apolitical process which promised (or threatened) to forever alter the way national campaigns would be conducted...
...It was fashionable in the season of the book's first publication... to lament the amorality of the process of selling the President and to bemoan as tragic the surrender of something so sacred as our method of choosing our leader to cynical, mercenary... soldiers of fortune.
But, look: who were the Watergate villains?  Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Magruder, Dean, Colson, Liddy, Hunt, and of course Nixon himself.  These were the people (excepting Nixon) whom even Harry Treleaven (my note: Treleaven is pretty much the hero of the book) considered the forces of darkness...  As for the supposedly venal ad men... their hands are clean, their souls unsullied (my note, again: this was written before Roger Ailes committed the deadly sin of producing Fox Not-News)...  What's more, every one of them was absolutely correct about Spiro Agnew. (introduction)
I liked the writing: wordy but not showing off, leavened with a dash of self-deprecation and awareness, an attempt at objective analysis while letting the author's bias show up in bits of levity.

The book itself then dives into the actual mechanics of what a modern Presidential campaign is anymore: a series of staged, well-managed media events staggered by a round of making televised ad snippets.  Interwoven into the scenes of Richard Nixon - not the most comfortable of souls - doing what he could to be both dignified (his only saving grace as a figure at that point) and (formally) informal, McGinniss wrote about the ad men themselves, dedicated to an increasingly demanding job of marketing to an electorate whose moods and whims shifted with each changing news story.

I loved McGinniss' introductory chapter to Treleaven: a rather middle-class guy who worked in L.A. for the Times and wrote radio scripts for a few years and grew to loathe it out there:

One night he and his wife were having dinner in a restaurant in L.A. with a couple he did not like.  Halfway through the meal, he turned to his wife.  
"Do you like it here?"  
"You mean the restaurant?"  
"I mean Los Angeles."  
"No, not especially."  
"Then let's go." (p.42)

At which point Treleaven left that night to New York City to find another job and never looked back.

It's a brilliant way to write a descriptive of your subject.  It highlighted Treleaven's sense of self, and an impulsive earnest willingness to break the routine when realizing the routine was killing his soul.  Elsewhere, McGinniss noted how Treleaven was annoyed that a newspaper misspelled his name, but found out later it wasn't about a sense of pride, it was Treleaven being disappointed someone didn't do their job right.

It was Treleaven, working on a 1966 Congressional campaign in Texas for this businessman named George HW Bush, who noted that "logical persuasion" was difficult to sell because he found "probably more people vote for irrational, emotional reasons than professional politicians suspect." (p.45)  He found that image worked wonders, as long as he presented Bush as likable, hard-working, and expressing empathy for the voter.  Bush won in heavily-leaning conservative Democratic Texas beating the incumbent 58 percent to 42, an unheard-of victory margin in that day and age (and even remarkable in this one where incumbents are even harder to defeat).

It's in these revelations that McGinniss details the shift in political science away from the logical to the emotional.  In some ways, politics had always been emotional and partisan.  But previous campaigns there were serious issues that had to be debated seriously.  The new method, due to television requiring an expressive empathic presence, needed to rely on emotional impact more than ever.  It stains the political discourse we have today, where actual facts and the complexity of real-world issues are drowned out by impulsive and inaccurate posturing.  Because of all the money that all this marketing requires, every candidate for every office has to campaign to the emotional impulse... nearly every minute of every day.

It was both eye-opening and horrifying to read the book when I was in college.  I keep re-reading every so often to compare it to the horrors of the political stage we see today 24/7.

But for more than just the outrage about the destruction of honest politics.  I kept this book because it's a great read.

McGinniss' skill as a writer-reporter comes through during the most compelling chapter in his book, the one where Nixon's campaign stages a "Question & Answer" broadcast where they actually bring on a fire-eating liberal radio show host, by the name of Jack McKinney (whom McGinniss suggested when Ailes asked him for any liberals they could bring onto the show).  McKinney goes after Nixon like a bulldog, and for half a chapter McGinniss details how Nixon works the stage, projecting somewhat Nixon's inner rage but also making you cheer Nixon on as he verbally spars with an opponent out to ruin his night.

Yeah.  Cheering Nixon on.  And this is an admitted Kennedy-following liberal reporter in McGinniss making you root for the sonofabitch.

I'm writing all this because McGinniss just passed away.  Andrew Sullivan at The Dish dedicated a decent-sized memorial to a fellow political writer/junkie:

...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... 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.
The book I keep from college over twenty years ago was itself twenty years old when I got it.  It was relevant in 1968 and 1988 and 2012 and will remain relevant.   Because it's that well-written.  And that important a topic.

You must read it.

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