Monday, March 11, 2019

The Selling of the President 1968

The Selling of the President 1968
by Joe McGinniss
Recommended Ages: 14+

The title of this book is a bit of a joke, referencing a series of books by Theodore H. White titled The Making of the President, 1960 and ditto 1964, 1968 and 1972. White’s original book won big awards and was credited with revolutionizing the way journalists wrote about politics – which is the kind of buzz this book got. But instead of covering the presidential election of 1968 in general, this book focuses on the way the Richard Nixon campaign used an innovative approach to television advertising as part of its winning strategy. It’s the kind of wryly funny story that a historically ignorant reader might possibly mistake for a novel of satire, or perhaps speculative horror.

An early chapter of this book is a word-for-word transcript of a shooting session for a Nixon TV ad that I thought did a bang-up job of establishing the characters in the drama, including Nixon himself. Fair disclosure: I read this book while visiting my folks, and my father picked up the book when I set it down to deal myself a hand of solitaire, and he found that chapter very dull and concluded that the book would not be entertaining to read. I had to advise him to skip ahead a chapter or two to disabuse him of that opinion.

All this, of course, happened before I was born, and I’m no spring chicken. But if, as McGinniss contends, the people who designed Nixon’s televised campaign ads really were the first to sell us a president based on a profound understanding of how TV can be used to render people suggestible, then the way things are now in presidential politics and have been all my life started here. If what it reveals about Nixon and his supporters is less than creditable, it is just as discreditable to the critical thinking abilities of U.S. voters, and to the likelihood of a really worthy candidate getting elected in this politically fractured country.

Exactly how McGinniss pulled of this feat of journalism, I can scarcely imagine. The way he tells the story, it’s almost as if he was inside the campaign. At the very least, he had intimate access to the men who ran the TV side of it. He includes internal memos and position papers about the theory of what they were doing and how they meant to go about it. He brings it right down to the nerve-wracking final moments of election night, where McGinniss apparently spent time in the same hotel as many campaign staffers. The book is funny and chilling at the same time, revealing a cynical side of modern (or postmodern) American politics that one recognizes as alive, well, and if anything, even more deceptive and mind-controlling today.

Since my extant book reviews do not go back to the previous time I read a book by Joe McGinniss, I just want to take this opportunity to put in a plug for The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, a similar work of journalism-in-the-form-of-a-novel that I read a couple decades ago and found captivating. It’s about a small-town Italian soccer team that made the big time in a system where the top couple of teams at each level of competition go up a league at the end of the season, and the bottom couple go down. Previously ignorant of and indifferent to soccer, McGinniss suddenly became an enthusiast the year Castel di Sangro made it to Italy’s premier league, and he spent the entire next year following them around the boot of Europe, documenting their struggle to keep up with clubs backed by bigger and richer organizations. He got to know them, experienced their ups and downs, sympathized with their (at times tragic) losses and rejoiced with their victories.

Considering that I never before or since cared much about soccer, I think it’s really meaningful when I say that when I read this book, I felt completely invested in the outcome of the club’s campaign for “la salvezza.” It was a really fine book, and based on how much I enjoyed it and this earlier piece of his writing, I really should look into some of the books he wrote in between – including several notable true-crime books.

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