Sharp Pencils Shape Elections

How three pioneering reporters reshaped the way the press covers elections-and politics itself

John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail in 1960 (© Ted Spiegel/CORBIS)
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He believed, somewhat naively, that "if the conventions have done their work well, as normally they do, then the American people are offered two men of exceptional ability," but even as early as 1960 he was able to set sentiment aside long enough to peer into the future. He understood that the rise of the primaries was changing everything—"Conventions are now less bluntly controlled by bosses, and more sharply controlled by techniques and forces set in motion outside the convention city itself." White perceived, too, that "the intrusion of television on the convention" meant that "under the discipline of the camera, conventions are held more tightly to schedule, their times adjusted for maximum viewing opportunities, their procedure streamlined, not for the convenience or entertainment of the delegates, but for the convenience of the nation" and, it goes without saying, the convenience of television.

White understood that television was changing everything, and wrote vividly about the precedent-setting 1960 televised presidential debates, but he only dimly perceived what Joe McGinniss came along eight years later to make plain: that television now ran the show. McGinniss, a young journalist working out of Philadelphia and blessed, apparently, with an abundance of charm, insinuated his way into the inner circle of Richard Nixon's media campaign, particularly those working on his advertising strategy and his carefully staged television appearances before handpicked, sympathetic audiences. He was allowed to sit in on nearly all of their meetings, traveled with them, and engaged in long, casual conversations on an ongoing basis. Whether any of them had an inkling of what lay in store for them remains unknown, but the book that resulted left no doubt that Nixon was in the hand of a small group of (mostly) amiable, cynical, hard-boiled Svengalis.

The "grumpy, cold, and aloof" Nixon, as McGinnis described him, was a public-relations nightmare, but by dint of determination and ceaseless hard work he'd recovered from his double humiliation—by Kennedy in 1960 and by Edmund G. "Pat" Brown in the 1962 California governor's race—and walked away with the 1968 Republican nomination. He commenced the fall campaign with a huge advantage handed him by the Democrats, whose riot-torn convention in Chicago was a disaster and whose nominee, Hubert Humphrey, was held in contempt by much of the party's rank and file. Nixon's handlers were resolved not to let him fritter away his lead by reverting to the humorless, graceless, calculating "Old Nixon" detested by many voters, and concentrated on projecting an image of a "New Nixon" who was, above all else, "warm."

"I am not going to barricade myself into a television studio and make this an antiseptic campaign," Nixon promised as the campaign began, but it became clear almost immediately that this was precisely what he was going to do. Psychologically, Nixon was fragile, combustible goods. His staff remembered all too well how he had flown off the handle after losing to Pat Brown, bitterly informing the press that "you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." They were apprehensive about putting him in situations where he could not be reined in, where instead of exuding warmth he would come across as white hot. The goal, one of his advisers wrote, was "pinpointing those controlled uses of the television medium that can best convey the image we want to get across." This is how McGinniss puts it:

"So this was how they went into it. Trying, with one hand, to build the illusion that Richard Nixon, in addition to his attributes of mind and heart, considered, in the words of Patrick K. Buchanan, a speech writer, ‘communicating with the of the great joys of seeking the Presidency'; while with the other they shielded him, controlled him, and controlled the atmosphere around him. It was as if they were building not a President but an Astrodome, where the wind would never blow, the temperature never rise or fall, and the ball never bounce erratically on the artificial grass."

McGinniss' disclosures about the artificiality of the Nixonian image that his handlers presented to the electorate surprised many readers and shocked some, but they really didn't come as news. As McGinniss himself readily acknowledged, the marriage of politicians and advertising had been consummated years before—certainly by 1956, when New York City's venerable advertising agency, Batton, Barton, Durstine and Osborn, took on Dwight Eisenhower as a regular account—as was confirmed by Ike's Republican national chairman, Leonard Hall, who said unapologetically: "You sell your candidates and your programs the way a business sells its products."

No, what I think really appalled readers—especially, needless to say, those predisposed against Nixon—was what McGinniss revealed about the cynicism of the candidate and his staff toward the electorate and, even more startling, the cynicism of the staff toward the candidate. Jim Sage, one of Nixon's filmmakers, told McGinniss: "We didn't have to make cheap and vulgar films....But those images strike a note of recognition in the kind of people to whom we are trying to appeal....Nixon has not only developed the use of the platitude, he's raised it to an art form. It's mashed potatoes. It appeals to the lowest common denominator of American taste." Kevin Phillips, today a political pundit but then a 27-year-old Nixon staffer, struck a similar note, describing spots that featured John Wayne: "Wayne might sound bad to people in New York, but he sounds great to the schmucks we're trying to reach through John Wayne. The people down there along the Yahoo Belt."

As for how the staff regarded the candidate, Roger Ailes, who supervised the staged question-and-answer television shows (and who now runs Fox News), positively (and hilariously) dripped with contempt. "Let's face it," he said in one staff meeting, "a lot of people think Nixon is dull. Think he's a bore, a pain in the ass. They look at him as the kind of kid who always carried a bookbag. Who was forty-two years old the day he was born. They figure other kids got footballs for Christmas, Nixon got a briefcase and he loved it....Now you put him on television, you've got a problem right away. He's a funny-looking guy. He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight and he jumps out in the morning with his suit all bunched up and starts running around saying, ‘I want to be President.' I mean this is how he strikes some people. That's why these shows are important. To make them forget all that."

If there was a bombshell in The Selling of the President 1968, this was it. To be sure, McGinniss didn't shock enough voters to prevent Nixon from steamrolling McGovern four years later. Nevertheless, what he had to say about the campaign's scorn for the people whose votes it sought surely opened some eyes. There is no way to calibrate such matters, but I suspect that this may have contributed significantly to the cynicism that voters themselves now express about political candidates—wariness that subsequently was fed by such films as The Candidate, All the President's Men, The War Room, Wag the Dog, Bulworth and Primary Colors. If The Selling of the President 1968 was not the crucial element in the evolution of public cynicism about politics, it certainly played a catalytic role.

This surely helps explain why the book remains in print today, for the truth is that otherwise it doesn't hold up very well. McGinniss has a keen ear and the book is full of wonderful quotes, but it's surprisingly thin—a mere 168 pages of large-type text padded out with another 83 pages of appendices—and shallow as well. With its shock value long since dissipated, The Selling of the President turns out to be less thoughtful than I had recalled. McGinniss learned a lot of interesting things, but he really did not have much to say about them.


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