Joe McGinniss, RIP


Joe McGinnis 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.

Of course, we bonded over the former half-term governor. He reached out to me when I was wildly exposed among journalists for refusing to believe her stories at face value. And what we bonded over was not a mutual revulsion at her politics. What we bonded over was the abject failure of the American press to say what had to be said about this preposterous, delusional maniac plucked from deserved obscurity by John McCain to be a heartbeat away from a potential presidency.

Her candidacy was a total farce; a disgrace; an outrage to American democracy; an appalling act of cynicism. Joe saw the creation of this media figure as a continuation of the Ailes recipe for optic politics, and he was appalled as so many mainstream outlets nonetheless insisted on taking this joke seriously.

So he went to do what others wouldn’t: to find the real truth about Palin, and he came closer than almost anyone.

I don’t see his last book as some kind of aberration, though it was obviously not in the same league as The Selling Of The President or Fatal Vision. I saw them all as a continuing crusade for a journalism that takes a stand, that welcomes obloquy if that’s what it takes to get to the truth, and that cares about our democracy. He would never have aimed for the “view from nowhere” or the facile mantra that one leading Washington journalist gave me when asked to explain why they hadn’t sought any proof for the fantastic Trig story that Palin spun: “Why ask questions when you know you won’t get an answer?” For Joe that was pathetic. As indeed it was.

One email I got from him that captures his tenacity and his humor:

My shrink asked me this afternoon if I thought my book was a factor in Palin’s decision not to run. I said, “It might have been. It certainly didn’t tip her toward running. She may well have seen what one lone reporter turned up in four months and realized what teams from MSM outlets might learn in twelve, as they would have done over the next year, if she’d run.”

She said, “In that case, the people of the United States will be eternally in your debt.”

I said, “Great: let’s work out a payment plan, like the ones I have with the IRS, the federal student loan agency, and American Express.”

She said, “By the way, you owe me $375: did you bring a check?”

Another, responding to this aside from me – “My cd4 count just plummeted to 350. But I’m fine”:

If I were an irreverent bastard, I’d note that this coincides with your endorsement of Ron Paul.

Romney will be the GOP nominee. If all the media energy expended on chasing phantoms were put to good use, we could stop importing foreign oil.

And Obama will trounce Romney in November. As he deserves to.

And Sarah is finished. Forever.

I’ll miss him – but not as much as we will.