exercises in compound storytelling

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Joe McGuinniss: The Selling Of The President 1968

Nixon while serving in CongressImage via Wikipedia
I'm getting married in a couple of months, and my fiancee and I are reading a bunch of marriage and relationship books as part of our preparation. It's a dangerous quest proceeding from a flawed premise (the gulf between relationships and writing about relationships is wide; the differences between a particular relationship and books about relationships generally are huge), but it's been an eye-opening experience, by turns enlightening, frustrating, and tedious.

As a result I'm finally reading The Selling of the President 1968 by Joe McGinniss. I snagged a copy out of the free bin at Mesa Public Library some time in the grey blurry past and I've been meaning to get around to it for some time.

I've been fascinated by Richard Nixon for years, I think partly due to having read at least two volumes of the Stephen Ambrose's Nixon biography. He's the first President I remember, the one who ended the war in Vietnam, and frankly I think he's the most important person in American politics between about 1948 and 1980.

The McGinniss book is about the 1968 campaign, and it's one of the first "you are there" campaign stories I'm aware of, written during the campaign by an outsider and published immediately thereafter. It isn't about the campaign so much as it is about the television commercials and how they were produced. McGinniss spends his time with the media guys, the ones producing commercials and half-hour panel discussions, as opposed to Nixon himself and his handlers.

Nixon was suspicious of television, having lost the 1960 campaign to Kennedy due at least partly to having not looked good during their televised debates. He was already a mature politician, having already been Congressman, Senator, and Vice President, and his actual opinions and values weren't about to change, but he was chastened by his loss to Kennedy and so he was willing to work with his television people (advertisers, basically, with at least one of them hailing from the same ad agency that later employed Michael Gates Gill of Starbucks fame), but just enough to win. McGinnis, because he's looking at the campaign from the media side, holds Nixon at arms' length and lets the media guys tell their stories.

Nixon was bringing 1950s sensibilities to what was a very Sixties campaign, and was comfortable with people like Bud Wilkinson, John Wayne, and Connie Francis. His ad men instead want to produce updated Daisy ads, successions of trite but effective mood-creating moments, informed by documentaries, mostly. They're hired hands, and they tend to produce ads consistent with their values that are then reconsidered by the Nixon political people. They produce ads that suggest undertones of racial harmony, or at least confrontation of racial issues, then have them toned down by people who want to reach out to Wallace supporters. They produce ads that make reference to ending the war in Vietnam, then have them toned down to avoid alienating war supporters. And in all of this it gradually becomes clear that to McGinnis's eye Nixon is less concerned about any of the issues his campaign stresses than in winning the election.

All of this stuff is so new and borderline naive in 1968 that it makes for compelling reading. The idea that television time is expensive is a surprise to some of the characters, as is the fact that the crowds in Nixon's half-hour panel discussions are all Nixon supporters, or that the discussions are assembled to accommodate the eye of the camera much more than the people in the audience. McGinnis seems by turns surprised and fascinated at the power of television, and the terrible things it appears to be doing to the process of choosing a President.

Also interesting are the portrayals of Roger Ailes, Pat Buchanan, and Kevin Phillips. Man that was a long time ago.
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