In the opening days of 2018, the book Fire and Fury set the internet ablaze. Author Michael Wolff, whose journalistic methods have received criticism across the political spectrum, marketed his book as a tell-all about Trump’s campaign and administration. But long before Wolff, another writer caught the nation’s attention with his own salacious tell-all—this one about Richard Nixon.
Journalist Joe McGinniss was only in his mid-20s when he gained access to Nixon’s first presidential campaign, which he chronicled in his best-selling book, The Selling of the President 1968. Similarly to Fire and Fury, it was a very big deal when it came out. Yet according to David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University, it may be a little difficult for modern readers to understand why.
That’s because the main “reveal” of McGinniss’ book was that the Nixon campaign consciously crafted an image of the candidate as warmer and more likeable in order to appeal to voters. This included emotionally resonant campaign ads in which Nixon didn’t actually say a lot, as well as an appearance on the hit variety show Laugh-In where he said, “Sock it to me?”
Today, using a media strategy is not news. It’s something that voters already assume about any campaign. “It’s hard to imagine that it came to a revelation to people,” says Greenberg, who is also the author of Republic of Spin. At the time, though, “it hadn’t necessarily occurred to people that there was that level of attention and sophistication.”
“The mere fact that you had Nixon’s media strategists so carefully planning and discussing how he should be presented, and how a question and answer forum should be staged, and who should be asking the questions—all that detail was revelatory,” Greenberg explains.
Before McGinniss’ book, it was understood that there were certain private, behind-the-scenes things that the press didn’t cover, such as the extramarital affairs of former presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Now, “some people [in the media] thought: Wow, this shows us what we should have been doing and weren’t in the 1968 campaign,” says Greenberg. It was “a key moment in that reconsideration of mid-20th century norms of journalism.”
The book also began a trend by which political consultants became part of the news. It propelled future Fox News chief Roger Ailes, who was a media consultant on Nixon’s campaign, and his field into the public eye. At the time, says Greenberg, consultants just weren’t figures that political journalists wrote about. But since McGinniss’ book came out, strategists like Karl Rove and Steve Bannon—one of the main figures in Fire and Fury—have become part of the news cycle themselves. (Ailes, who was one of the most-quoted sources in McGinniss’ book on Nixon, also pops up in Fire and Fury.)
Even though the book’s contents shocked many voters, Greenberg argues that it didn’t have much impact on Nixon’s media strategy. Nixon was already quite paranoid about the press to begin with, and had begun to isolate himself from reporters well before the book came out. Following his election, Nixon reduced his facetime with the media in favor of daily briefings by a press secretary, which has since become the norm (before Nixon’s move, presidents gave regular in-person briefings to the press).
The book’s enduring influence can now be seen in what the public expects from political coverage. Today, we don’t just assume there are consultants working behind the scenes to make a president look and act a certain way. We also expect that the press will report on these events—and that later, Hollywood will dramatize all these machinations in a movie.