An Inky writer’s prescient book on ‘68 election

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by Hugh Gilmore

Now that the 2020 presidential election date is only double-digits days away, every mechanical device in America (and possibly Russia) has begun spewing the memes, dreams and schemes that might bend your vote their way. Like spotted lantern flies alighting on Tree of Heaven bark, campaign teams are out to find you, no matter where you run, hide, sequester or squat. Covering yourself in double-sided tape won't deter them; they hop as well as they crawl. And when they get you, their specialty is brain sapping.

In self-defense, now is a good time to read some of the classic American Presidential campaign books written in modern times. Beginning, perhaps, with a pioneering book that should be read by every American child at the earliest possible age: "The Selling of the President 1968," by Joe McGinnis. Its message: American presidential candidates are sold to "The People" in the same way that bread, soup, and cheese are. Oh, and pickup trucks. That is, they are sold as branded products. This farm-to-table process starts with political consultants (parasites in vassalage to billionaires) who invent their candidates' "messages" and then sell the package, expecting votes as currency.

Joe McGinnis was a sharp and popular young writer with The Philadelphia Inquirer in his 20s in the late 1960s. As he tells it, his life was changed one day on a train ride to New York. He was talking to a fellow commuter who exultantly told him that he was really happy to learn that the public relations firm he worked for had just landed a huge contract worth a very large amount of money: they just got the Hubert Humphrey account. They'd be handling the advertising and public relations for Humphrey's run for president of the United States in the 1968 election. McGinnis perked up at the idea of possibly doing an embedded reporting piece about Humphrey's campaign.

That up-close-and-personal approach had worked well already for Theodore H. White, who'd written the best-selling, Pulitzer-Prize winning "The Making of the President 1960" about the John F. Kennedy v. Richard H. Nixon 1960 campaign. White had followed up that success with a 1964 version of the same idea and was in the process already with the 1968 election. (He'd later do a similarly titled 1972 one also.) White had pioneered the behind-the-scenes, issues-oriented, personality-driven kind of campaign biography. McGinnis wound up taking a different tack.

He called Humphrey's headquarters and was emphatically turned away – among other reasons because he was an "investigative" reporter who spilled the beans too often. So, he called Nixon's people and they immediately welcomed him aboard. Lucky for him. As often as possible he was allowed to sit in on planning meetings where, for the first time in history, a campaign was going to be waged based on how a candidate could best be marketed via television. The first level of change was created by veteran advertising "mad man" Harry Treleaven: issues don't matter – in fact, they bore people ­– what matters is image. A candidate needs an image. And that image will be based on what kind of leader the American people seem to want, in a given time, in a given political race.

The other leading director of Nixon's campaign was that crafty television production genius out of the Midwest – the inventor of the Good versus Evil dichotomy, Roger Ailes. Yes, eventual CEO of Fox News. He took the Nixon Election Campaign's scripts and produced them for television. The phony pre-chosen town halls, the dramatic closeups, the use of makeup and specially chosen angles that minimized Nixon's strange appearance. Ailes merged these techniques and others in what the team called, "The Richard Nixon Show," packaged for TV as a chance for the American people to get to know the candidate as though he were just a regular guy sitting in the living room with friends.

Nixon won. McGinnis published the book, his title a play on T. H. White's "The Making of the President," converted to "The Selling of the President." The idea was rather shocking in its day. Ailes didn't care. It showed off his talents and he capitalized on Mc Ginniss' portrait of him. The techniques he pioneered are still used today. Most contemporary voters, however, would probably deny they are being duped in the same way the voters of 1968 were. McGinnis, at 26, became the youngest New York Times bestselling author up till then.

Perhaps "The Selling of the President 1968" should be used as a primer for 1st graders (unless you have a class of kindergartners who can read, then yes, go ahead.) Too many years of our American lives are spent brutally unlearning the traditional lies told to keep us docile.  

worth-reading

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