Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Rogue Revisited: Weaving Together Themes of Joe McGinniss’ Work

By BlueberryT

I have been waiting to see a review of The Rogue that explores the links to Joe McGinniss’ earlier work, and have to admit that I am surprised that few if any of the reviewers took the time to look at this book in that context. It seems to me that the book is to some degree an extension of his earlier interests and work, weaving together key themes and insights that he has explored repeatedly throughout his illustrious career.

The very first point, almost too obvious to make, is that in all his books, Joe proves himself a keen observer: of people, of places, of human nature. His books often have a rich “cast of characters,” some deeply flawed and others of great integrity. Joe artfully weaves their stories into a fascinating fabric, allowing him to explore universal themes of ambition, greed, vengeance, deception, honesty, loyalty, compassion, bravery, integrity. He is equally deft at handling the comic and the tragic, and he himself is sometimes one of his own characters, often the one to ask the questions we are curious about, and not infrequently a comic foil.

It goes without saying that Joe is a master storyteller. He is particularly adept at revealing the story in such a way that the reader gradually comes to see the full picture, often seemingly in the same way that Joe did as his understanding evolved while he was “embedded” with his subject. In some of the books, his own presence is not as apparent, but in others he is central to the story, as is true in this case. His “search for the real Sarah Palin” is revealed with a storytelling arc that is reminiscent of his earlier works.

Certainly a few reviewers, as well as Joe himself, have pointed out that Joe’s interest in Alaska is not new. In his wonderful book Going to Extremes, he explored Alaska a mere two decades after it became a state, during the pipeline years. That book comes alive with characters who could only be who they are in the Last Frontier, a young society imposed on an ancient one, now evolving amid an epic landscape. Balancing dysfunction (including rampant alcoholism, drug abuse, corruption, poverty and physical abuse of Natives, especially women) are vignettes portraying Alaskans of great character, who found in Alaska a place where they could be free to be the truly “rugged individuals” that the rest of America mythologizes about. The great knowledge and spirit of some of these people is beyond inspiring. I can easily see how Joe fell in love with the unique place that Alaska was in the late 1970s. No wonder he wanted to go back and explore how that place played a role in creating the remarkable political phenomenon that is Sarah Heath Palin.

Less obvious (but I’ll still make it) is the analogy to The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, a book I loved for its exuberance and its keen portrayal of the characters of a small town. It is admittedly more of a stretch to link this book to The Rogue, but stylistically and thematically there are some parallels. Here is a small town whose soccer team came out of nowhere and rose to national prominence. The team’s story seems to be an allegory encompassing the full gamut of human spirit, emotion and character, ranging from people of great integrity to the most flawed and shameful – with most somewhere in between. Spoiler alert if you haven’t read it: the book closes with Joe’s huge disappointment as he becomes aware of corruption affecting the team he has come to love.

Perhaps a more obvious comparison is with McGinniss’ interest in pathologically narcissistic people. His brilliant portrayal of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald in Fatal Vision is one of the best close-up explorations of a psychopath that I have ever read. For someone who is NOT a fan of the true-crime genre, I found the book absolutely gripping. McGinniss did what he does so well: he lived with his subject, allowing him to create a fascinating, in-depth and meticulously well-documented portrayal of MacDonald. In doing so, he describes his own journey of revelation as he came to realize that the image MacDonald had created – and which he wanted McGinniss to portray – was utterly false and deceptive. I suspect that Joe can recognize a narcissist and a pathological personality a mile away, let alone next door.

Among all his books, The Selling of the President 1968 established investigative techniques, literary style and themes that he reprises in The Rogue in exploring Sarah Palin’s rise to political stardom. I recently reread his landmark book on Nixon’s 1968 campaign and marveled at how apt its lessons are today. I was left feeling that in this first book, Joe was trying to wake America up to the reality of how distorted and perverted political campaigning would become – but despite his warnings, Palin is the epitome of the political celebrity that his groundbreaking work predicted. Now, in The Rogue, he is again warning America to beware of politicians who are utter frauds, again showing how easily the public is deceived and manipulated, and admonishing the media on its failures to honestly portray these political caricatures.

As an interesting footnote, The Selling of the President 1968 also represented Joe’s his first association with Roger Ailes, who was then a wunderkind just embarking on his career influencing politics. The 1968 Nixon campaign was what really set Ailes apart as a shaper of the political narrative in this country. McGinniss pays him grudging respect for being a master of his craft. I found it interesting to see how hands-on Ailes was back in the day, attending to every detail with a perfectionist’s eye. You can see how a workaholic, compulsive personality like his became dangerous when combined with power and money. He comes off to me as an evil genius.

Here are some quotes from that book* that seem to resonate even more today and that I found particularly apt in relation to the Sarah Palin phenomenon.

· “Politics, in a sense, has always been a con game…That there is a difference between the individual and his image is human nature…That the difference is exaggerated and exploited electronically is the reason for this book…We have become so accustomed to our illusions that we mistake them for reality.”

· “With the knowledge of how television could be used to seduce voters, the old political values disappeared. Something new, murky, undefined started to rise from the mists…”

· “Television seems particularly useful to the politician who can be charming but lacks ideas…On television it matters less that he does not have ideas. His personality is what the viewers want to share…Style becomes substance.”

· Nixon failed in 1960 because he “did not know how to use television to lie about himself.”

· McGinniss showed how the campaign used subliminal messaging to create an aura and a mythical impression. [Interesting side note: I never realized this, but my father worked in the same advertising agency as Nixon’s advertising guru, at the same time!]

· He notes that “…issues would not have to be involved in the campaign…Most national issues are so complicated…they either intimidate or…bore the average voter.”

· “Political candidates are celebrities.”

· “…there was something important happening here. That this was not just politics and not just advertising and not just using television in a campaign, but something new and undefined…The use of stills for propaganda purposes—or ‘persuasion,’ as they like to say—is still quite new…In fact, the radicalness of this approach is in the fact of creating an image without actually saying anything…”

· [Quoting a man from the Museum of Modern Art commenting on the Nixon reel] “This is incredible. Every god-damned cliché in the book. There’s not one—not one—that you’ve missed.”

· [Quoting] “Nixon has not only developed the use of the platitude, he’s raised it to an art form…It appeals to the lowest common denominator of American taste. It’s a farce, a delicious farce; self-deception carried to the nth degree.”

· “The commercials are successful because people are able to relate them to their own delightful misconceptions of themselves and their country.”

· I’ll end as Joe did with a quote from Daniel Boorstin’s book, The Image: “Nowadays everybody tells us that what we need is more belief…more faith. A faith in America and what we’re doing. That may be true in the long run. What we need first is to disillusion ourselves. What ails us most is not what we have done with America, but what we have substituted for America…We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in place of reality.”

The Selling of the President 1968 was a dramatic exposé of the manipulation of image and how it is used to deceive the American people about their political leaders. McGinniss exposed the shift from political values and debate over issues to the cult of political celebrity. Perhaps Joe hoped that by revealing these machinations, he would alert the public to how they were being manipulated so we wouldn’t be so easily deceived.

I sense in The Rogue and the book tour that Joe is putting his best effort into making similar warnings about Palin. He is saying this very plainly—using words like “utter fraud.” He is out there taking a lot of flak, defending what he wrote and exposing everything about her that the public needs to know, so that they will see how dangerous she would be in a position of power. He is using the book, TV, radio, press and social media as effectively as he can to get the story out to as many people as he can. I see it as the closing of the loop on a subject he tackled first more than forty years ago.

* from The Selling of the President 1968 by Joe McGinniss, Trident Press, 1969

Here is a link to Phil Munger’s recent post on an interview of Joe McGinniss on KENI radio.


A reader has sent in a link to a download of the full Joe McGinniss Alaska interview which includes the discussion about babygate. Babygate discussion starts at the 26minute mark.

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