Much-reviled author deserving of his due
Author Joe McGinniss’ later work never came close to equaling two remarkable books he produced decades ago: The Selling of the President 1968 and Fatal Vision, in 1983. At his death last week at 71, there was almost as much talk about his often-questioned journalistic ethics as there was about these two influential works.
The Selling of the President 1968 was a groundbreaking expose of the commercialism of modern political campaigns.
Its subject was Richard Nixon’s second bid for the presidency, but the inside story of how the candidate was marketed detailed a cynical side of campaigning that now is popularly understood as a virtual requisite for victory. Then, it was a revelation.
Fatal Vision was a riveting account of a horrifying crime. Dr. Jeffrey McDonald, a captain in the Green Berets, was accused of killing his wife and two small daughters in their home at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1970.
MacDonald invited McGinniss to write the book, believing that he had McGinniss’ sympathy and that his account would convince doubters of his innocence. But after MacDonald was convicted, McGinniss revealed that he, too, had decided MacDonald was guilty.
Critics of McGinniss contended that he was unethical for not telling MacDonald of his conclusions earlier, and indeed McGinniss acknowledged that he did not want to reveal his growing doubts about MacDonald during the trial and risk cutting off the special access he had been granted. Later in his career, McGinniss also drew criticism from his peers for poorly sourced books on the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Imprisoned for life, MacDonald has continued to protest his innocence and seek a new trial, just as McGinniss steadfastly defended his conclusions in Fatal Vision. In 2012, McGinniss published a short e-book called Final Vision, in which he wrote, All these years later, the story has yet to let me go.
What is beyond the three-decade argument is that, along with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Fatal Vision virtually created the true-crime genre, whose books now fill whole sections of airport gift shops and fuel endless TV sagas. Few, if any, are as completely absorbing.