Remembrance of Times Past and Vale Joe McGinniss

I always wanted to be the managing editor of The New York Times.
Okay, you say, nearly every journalist would say that, but first you have to work there. Well, I had a slim chance to get a Times job back in 1966 when I moved to New York to attend graduate school at NYU. Earlier that year I had met the paper’s Washington Bureau Chief, Tom Wicker, when he came to Villanova University to give a speech.
Wicker was one of the most respected journalists of his era. He covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and as the lone Times reporter in Dallas that fateful day in November 1963, dictated the story from a phone booth from notes scribbled on a White House itinerary sheet – a story that led page one and filled all of page two of the paper the following day. It made Tom Wicker top gun of The New York Times.
Tom had reluctantly agreed to give me a reference for the Times, saying he didn’t know me except that I was the editor of the student newspaper, The Villanovan, when we met. But he liked my resume and suggested he would say I had potential (or something like that, I can’t remember his exact words!). So I applied for a job as a news clerk, which is what the Times called a copyboy (or girl, not that I saw many then!), and thought I had a chance – a slim one, as mentioned above.
Little did I know that Tom Wicker as Washington Bureau Chief was out of favour with the executive editor of the Times, Turner Catledge, along with a few other editors in the New York office. Why? As former managing editor of the Times, Arthur Gelb, put it in his 2003 memoir of the paper, City Room, Catledge “grumbled about Wicker’s leisurely pace as chief of the bureau. Wicker … was finding it difficult to concentrate on his supervisory role while also writing an editorial page column three times a week.” Author Gay Talese also wrote about the friction between the bureaus in his 1969 book on the Times, The Kingdom and the Power. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
I was thinking about this last night as I was listening to Carol Giacomo’s address about President Barack Obama’s foreign policy in his second term at an event sponsored by the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Ms Giacomo, a long-time diplomatic correspondent for Reuters, is now a member of The New York Times editorial board, as well as the Council on Foreign Relations.
She gave an interesting speech about how difficult it was going to be for the President to do anything on Ukraine, Asia or the Middle East or a host of other issues, with the Republicans “beating up on him” all the time. She also told the gathering at the Raddison Blu Plaza hotel in Sydney about how the paper has spoken out very strongly against Edward Snowden, the former intelligence contractor, whose leak of classified information has upset a lot of countries. And in an answer to my question about whether Barack Obama will ever fulfil his promise to close Guantanamo Bay, she said she didn’t know if it was possible for him to do that before the end of his presidency. But it was good to hear that the Times Editorial Board has been critical of him over the issue.
What made me reminisce was her description of how the 15 members of the Board sit around and talk about what’s going in the paper that day. It’s a diverse group of people, and each has their area of expertise. For a brief moment, I pictured myself in that room – addressing them as managing editor. We can all dream, can’t we?
While I’m on the subject of journalism and newspapers, it would be remiss not to mention the death of journalist and author, Joe McGinniss (photo above by Dan Joling, Associated Press), in the United States, at the age of 71. The author of The Selling of the President 1968; an inside look at how the political marketers got Richard Nixon elected; Fatal Vision, a best-selling true crime story about Jeffrey MacDonald, who murdered his pregnant wife and two small children; and The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, a controversial biography of the former Alaskan Governor and Vice-Presidential candidate.
Joe McGinniss was in Australia in May, 2012 for the Sydney Writer’s Festival to promote the book and talk about his career. I got him to sign The Rogue, and chatted to him very briefly after his entertaining Festival interview with Annabel Crabb. He recalled his days as a sportswriter and columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and signed the book: “To Tom, With all best wishes to a Philadelphian. Joe McGinniss.” I wrote a post about the session:
I’ve liked all of Joe’s books, but Gene Weingarten, a Pulitzer Prize-winning humour columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a tribute to his friend yesterday in which he blasted The Rogue: “Much as I hate to agree with Sarah Palin about anything, his 2011 biography of her was thin and crappy and lazy, filled with poorly sourced innuendo.”
But Weingarten praises Joe’s early works, and has this to say about Fatal Vision: “… I am writing this because of Fatal Vision, which was as good and as rigorous a work of nonfiction as there is. It belongs right here, in the same sentence as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which may be the greatest true-crime book ever written.”
Weingarten claims the decline in Joe’s career stems from Janet Malcolm’s famous piece in the New Yorker, “The Journalist and the Murderer,” in which she calls him a journalistic con man for getting unrestricted access to MacDonald’s trial, then being convinced of his guilt and never telling the convicted man he changed his mind. Malcolm also targeted the ethics of journalism and some journalists.
While Weingarten acknowledged Janet Malcolm scored points in some of her criticism, he says she unfairly pilloried McGinniss, and that Fatal Vision is the book for which he will be remembered: “It was a great book. It was a fair book. It is Joe McGinniss’s masterpiece. If you are a writer, and you want a clinic in muscular storytelling — how it can and should be done — read Fatal Vision.”
My favourite book of his is Heroes, in which Joe McGinniss travels the country looking for heroes, but does not find any. He writes: “At least not of the kind I was looking for … No one who, as critic Ihab Hassan put it, ‘unites the course of history and the stream of dreams’.” McGinniss concluded that we will have to get by with private symbols, and he was working on his: “Such as: that writing about an experience, or life, can give it meaning. That writing about the loss of illusions – the vanishing of heroes – can compensate, in however small and unsatisfactory a way, for the no longer deniable fact that they are gone.”
Vale Joe McGinniss.

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