Guest Column: Joe McGinniss’ tireless pursuit of the good story

John Timpane

Joe McGinniss, the former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist who died last week at 71 of prostate cancer, was a bridge between two eras of journalism. His reporting was the brash, incisive work of a 20th-century big-city reporter and columnist.

But he also helped create a new kind of journalism: iconoclastic, eyewitness, finding original “ways in” to stories, leading to disturbing or revelatory conclusions.

He joined writers as various as Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, and Truman Capote, whose work came to be known as New Journalism. Like them, McGinniss stressed gritty realism, no matter how sensational or dark, and walked a tightrope between the acceptable and the questionable.

His books included “The Selling of the President 1968,” the 1980 gem “Going to Extremes,” the controversial 1983 true-crime book “Fatal Vision,” and “The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin” of 2011. Let’s take a moment to hear his voice, in “Going to Extremes.” Our scene is an “Oily T-Shirt Contest” in Valdez, the loading harbor for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline:

“At the conclusion of the contest, a couple of the drunker, fatter, grosser members of the audience climbed clumsily up onto the platform and began trying to pull the T-shirts off the women. A great deal of pushing and screaming and shoving ensued, until the Valdez Fire Department turned on the hose and knocked everyone to the ground and swept the platform clean. Screaming, raving, obese drunken men poured out of the parking lot …”

The capper: “The First Annual Valdez Oily T-Shirt Contest was deemed by all a great success.” It’s the great American school of tale-telling: Keep it as people speak; know a good tale and don’t get in its way; tell it so it’s good to read.

McGinniss, who graduated from Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., in 1964, joined the Philadelphia Bulletin in 1965 as a sports writer. Restless, he applied in 1966 to John Gillen, managing editor of The Inquirer. Gillen knew a talent when he saw one and brought him aboard.

Many are the stories. Still an undergrad at Holy Cross, McGinniss (a horse-racing fanatic) and a school chum drove all the way down to Louisville, Ky., for the Kentucky Derby, “living,” as fellow Bulletin sportswriter Frank Bilovsky puts it, “on peanut butter and crackers.”

At The Inquirer, he was eager to learn the city. Don McDonough, already a legendary city reporter, took him around. McDonough tells of hanging out at the bar at the Bellevue Stratford, at Dewey’s Famous hamburger joint, at watering holes such as Edward’s Board Room.

“He wanted to know about everything,” McDonough says. “He was energetic, ambitious, with a great writing style, too, punchy and on the mark.”

Gillen soon made McGinniss a columnist, and gave him carte blanche. Former Inquirer editor Bob Greenberg says, “That was very unusual, then, and now _ and it turned out to be a very good move. He made himself a brilliant, relentless columnist, in my opinion the best The Inquirer ever had.”

He wrote three days a week, leading the Metro section with provocative, tirelessly reported, original columns. When news of Robert Kennedy’s shooting reached him, an enraged McGinniss wrote a white-hot column calling the United States a “cesspool,” prompting Inquirer owner Walter Annenberg to write a front-page apology.

This kid nearly got into a fistfight with Wilt Chamberlain. Bilovsky recalls: “Not the smartest thing to do, but he got on Wilt about his free-throw shooting and wouldn’t let up, and Wilt said, ‘I’ll knock your head off.’” Accounts differ. Some say there was shoving. Some say sports writer Bill Conklin tried to protect McGinniss. It’s such a great story, the details almost don’t matter.

He begged Gillen to send him to Vietnam, and later to the peace talks in Paris. One night, he drove down to Dover Air Force Base, watched bodies coming back from Vietnam, and wrote a column about it, “really underlining,” says Bilovsky, “the futility of the war.”

Somehow, after being rejected by the campaign crew of Hubert Humphrey during campaign year 1968, McGinniss got into the Nixon camp, and wrote “Selling,” the first book to expose a U.S. presidential campaign as essentially an exercise in modern marketing techniques.

“There was a wind of change blowing through journalism,” says fellow Inquirer alumnus Ken Shuttlesworth. “A new, aggressive way of reporting, and McGinniss was a master.” Rem Rieder, another Inquirer alum, now media editor for USA Today, says: “He got behind the veneer and showed the ugly side. At the time, we were all reading the ‘Making of the President’ books by (Theodore) White, but ‘Selling’ reflected the rise of the counterculture, as more and more people wanted to get behind that veneer.”

Some obits in the Guardian, Politico, the New York Times concentrated on the dustup over his methods, especially in “Fatal Vision.” In 1979 he agreed with former Green Beret Jeffrey MacDonald to write about the man, accused of killing his wife and two daughters in 1970.

It didn’t go MacDonald’s way. “The first year or so,” says former Inquirer editor Michael Pakenham, “Joe probably was disposed to believe he was innocent, but as he did more research, he ended up thoroughly convinced he was guilty.” MacDonald sued. McGinniss won but settled out of court.

Some, such as New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, called his work “morally indefensible.” Pakenham, who remembers long talks with him about how to cover the story, says: “I thought Joe was a reporter of impeccable integrity. He never misrepresented anything to my knowledge.” He calls attacks like Malcolm’s “outrageously irresponsible.”

McGinniss thus joined the ranks of those who found fame harder to have than to achieve. Shuttlesworth saw it one night, when a dog-tired McGinniss, at the height of his success, leaned across the bar and told him:

“Kenny, never be famous.”