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!
The 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).
The reason 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 be projecting.
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 and Vice-President.
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 commanding.
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!