I read Joe McGinnis' 1969 book, The Selling of the President 1968. The book is about the attempts of Nixon's campaign to create an image of Richard Nixon that they could sell to the public. Incidentally, McGinnis is the same author who moved next door to Sarah Palin's house when he was writing a book about her.
I learned about The Selling of the President 1968 when reading David Greenberg's Nixon's Shadow. See my post here.
Greenberg said that the book's thesis was that "since Nixon’s natural
personality was so unappealing, his campaign aides concocted a new
persona they projected through TV ads and tightly guarded performances"
(Greenberg on page 141). According to Greenberg, McGinnis observed this
by simply hanging around the Nixon campaign: "McGinnis sneaked in under
the radar screen, presenting himself to Nixon’s men as such an
insignificant fly on the wall that they never thought to swat him away."
In one of the books by Nixon that I read----I think it was In the Arena----Nixon
referred to a book about his campaign whose author purported to be an
eyewitness, but Nixon was denying that this author had firsthand
knowledge. My hunch is that Nixon was talking there about McGinnis' The Selling of the President 1968. From what Greenberg said, the book made quite a splash when it came out!
thing is, whether or not McGinnis was an actual eyewitness, Nixon's
campaign was definitely trying to sell to the public a specific image of
Richard Nixon, for McGinnis includes in his Appendix memoranda by such
campaign advisers as Len Garment, William Gavin, Harry Treleaven, Ray Price, and Pat Buchanan. At the same time, the narrative part of
McGinnis' book contains some pretty scathing material, and this book was
released in 1969, some years before the Watergate tapes revealed to the
public glimpses of the behind-the-scenes Nixon. McGinnis tells a story
of people on Nixon's campaign who were cynical and even racist. As far
as Nixon's own presence in the book is concerned, he himself is not in
the book that much, but McGinnis does present Nixon criticizing "the
damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there" (page 24).
that I decided to read this book is that I was curious about two things:
(1.) What specifically made Nixon's personality so unappealing? (2.)
What image did Nixon's advisers want to present to the public, instead?
This is a personal issue for me, since, like Nixon, I'm socially
awkward, rather stiff, and uncomfortable in my own skin. I wonder how I
can project an alternative image of myself, and what exactly I should
What made Nixon unappealing was that he appeared to
lack warmth, his discussion of issues could be rather dispassionate and
lawyer-like, and he had to live down his reputation as a loser, since
he lost the 1960 Presidential election, then the 1962 election for
Governor of California. Some of the things that plagued Nixon's
reputation in the past, such as the widespread view that he was a brutal
campaigner, were not as much of a problem in 1968, in the eyes of some
of Nixon's aides. In their minds, that was all a matter of the past,
and many Americans in 1968 either did not know about, or did not care
about, Nixon's campaigns against Voorhis and Douglas, or his
hard-hitting speeches back when he was Dwight Eisenhower's running-mate
In terms of the efforts to project an image
for Nixon, it seems to me that Nixon's advisers were trying to project
an image, without looking like they were projecting an image. In a
memorandum in the appendix, there was the statement that the campaign
shouldn't be aiming to depict Nixon as a back-slapper, for Nixon was
running for President, not participating in the Moose lodge (or some
such group). The public knew that Nixon wasn't a back-slapper, but many
still respected him on account of his experience and knowledge. Still,
the memoranda were saying that Nixon had to appear as a warm human
being. It was good when the public could see, for example, that Nixon
played the piano, or had daughters. When Nixon was answering questions
at one of his forums, he needed to add an element of give-and-take: not
just lecturing, but expressing interest in the perspective of the person
asking the question. When he was campaigning at a place, he should
show that he was interested in some of the place's sites. He should
demonstrate that he understands the human impact of issues rather than
merely citing statistics. Earlier in the book, McGinnis talks about how
one can come across effectively on television, where intimacy is
communicated more than it is on the movie screen: one should come across
as a guest in someone's home, as one who suggests rather than
These are fine examples of social skills, and many of them overlap with Dale Carnegie's suggestions in How to Win Friends and Influence People.
According to McGinnis, Nixon's Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey,
was not particularly effective on television, for Humphrey tended to
shout on TV, which was not exactly the place for oratory. When I read
that, I wondered what McGinnis would say about Richard Nixon's 1952
Checkers' speech, where (in my opinion) Nixon did come across as a
personable guest in people's homes and tried to express understanding of
their financial situations, and yet near the end of his speech
manifested a fighting, orating tone.
On Hubert Humphrey, McGinnis
does praise one of Humphrey's television appearances, in which Humphrey
was essentially showing people snippets from his life. McGinnis also
criticizes this appearance, but he states that, whereas Nixon's ads
often caused people to reflect on the ads, Humphrey's appearance led
them to think about Humphrey himself, as if they concluded that Humphrey
was showing them himself as he truly was. As McGinnis states on pages
137-138: "It showed Humphrey wearing a stupid fisherman's hat and
getting his lines snarled on a lake near his home and it took shameless
advantage of the fact he has a mentally retarded granddaughter. It was
contrived and tasteless. But it was the most effective single piece of
advertising of the campaign."
When should one be oneself, and when
should one try to contrive an image? In one part of the book, McGinnis
tells a story about when Nixon was at one of his panels, and he and the
moderator were getting confrontational with each other. According to
McGinnis, that was probably one of the most effective panels, even
though Nixon was most likely upset that things did not go according to
his predictable plan! Let Nixon be Nixon? Sometimes, that actually
worked! Many of us probably try to find a medium between being
ourselves and projecting an image, for both are necessary, and yet both
are inadequate by themselves. Many of us realize that people will not
like us if they were aware of all of our weaknesses, and so we pretend
to be better than we are; yet, if we pretend too much, we don't appear
real to others, and people don't particularly like that!
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