Author and journalist Joe McGinniss dies, aged 71 | South China Morning Post
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  • Feb 27, 2015
  • Updated: 11:12pm

Author and journalist Joe McGinniss dies, aged 71

Author of best-selling books on Richard Nixon and Hong Kong killer Nancy Kissel dies, aged 71, from complications of prostate cancer

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2014, 10:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2014, 11:09pm

Joe McGinniss, the adventurous and news-making author and reporter who skewered the marketing of Richard Nixon in The Selling of the President 1968 and tracked his personal journey from sympathiser to scourge of convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald in the blockbuster Fatal Vision, has died, aged 71.

He also wrote Never Enough, about how high-powered American banker Robert Kissel was bludgeoned to death by his wife, Nancy, in their Hong Kong flat.

McGinniss, who had been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer, died on Monday from complications related to his disease.

Few journalists of his time so intrepidly pursued a story, burned so many bridges or more memorably placed themselves in the narrative, whether insisting on the guilt of MacDonald after seemingly befriending him, or moving next door to Sarah Palin's house for an unauthorised biography.

The tall, talkative McGinniss was best known for two works that became touchstones in their respective genres - campaign books ( The Selling of the President) and true crime ( Fatal Vision). In both cases, he had become fascinated by the difference between public image and private reality.

McGinniss was a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1968 when an advertising man told him he was joining Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign. Intrigued that candidates had advertising teams, McGinniss was inspired to write a book and tried to get access to Humphrey. The Democrat turned him down, but, according to McGinniss, Nixon aide Leonard Garment allowed him in, apparently unaware, or unconcerned, that McGinniss' heart was very much with the anti-war agitators the candidate so despised.

The Republican's victory capped a once-unthinkable comeback for the former vice-president. Having lost the 1960 election in part because of his pale, sweaty appearance during his first debate with John F. Kennedy and aware of his reputation as a partisan willing to play dirty, Nixon had restricted his public outings and presented himself as a new and more mature candidate.

McGinniss was far from the only writer to notice Nixon's reinvention, but few offered such raw and unflattering details. McGinniss revealed Nixon aides, disparaging vice-presidential candidate Spiro Agnew, drafting memos on how to fix Nixon's "cold" image and debating which black man - only one was permitted - was right for participating in a televised panel discussion.

The Selling of the President, published in 1969, spent months on best-seller list and made McGinniss an eager media star.

In 1979, he was a columnist for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner when he was approached by MacDonald, a fellow California resident, about a possible book on the 1970 killings for which the physician and former soldier was being charged.

In the early hours of February 17, 1970, MacDonald's pregnant wife and two small children were stabbed and beaten to death at the family's home in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. MacDonald, who sustained a punctured lung and minor injuries, had insisted that the house was overrun by a gang of drug-crazed hippies that chanted slogans such as "Acid is groovy" and spelled "PIG" in blood on a bedroom wall.

But investigators believed that MacDonald killed his family. He was initially cleared of charges, then indicted, then finally brought to trial in 1979. He was found guilty and sentenced to three consecutive life terms.

Nothing later approached the popularity of Fatal Vision.

But by the 21st century McGinniss was back in the news, if not on the best-seller lists, with a biography of Palin, The Rogue. Anxious for a close look into Palin's world, McGinniss scored a front-row seat when he rented a house next door to her home in Wasilla, Alaska.

"At first, Sarah will probably be less than thrilled to learn I'm here," McGinniss wrote in the 2011 book's introduction. "And who can blame her?"


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