"In the beginning I thought writing would be a neat way to be involved with sports," said Joe McGinniss. "What could be more fun?"
That thought was pre-1968, before Joe McGinniss -- Irish Catholic, middle-class Holy Cross alum turned Philadelphia reporter-columnist -- was diverted on an assignment to write about Howard Cosell and ended up writing a best-selling book called "The Selling of the President 1968." The subject, of course, was Richard Nixon. The 26-year-old McGinniss was celebrated as a precocious, boy-wonder journalist, the "kid" who unmasked the Madison Avenue-Machiavellian mentality of American politics. A national hero.
But now everyone knows that a staff of makeup artists re-created Jimmy Carter for television, that political conventions are staged like Hollywood musicals, that it could be a long time before something is written about the crass and dark side of American politics that could interest us. As McGinniss said, "Watergate did it all."
So what now?
At 38, McGinniss -- 6-foot-3, lean and boyish-looking -- seems wiser after two books that fell far short of his first success, but he still finds a good story as enticing as ever.
"I didn't go up there to write a pipeline book," said McGinniss, whose latest book, "Going to Extremes," chronicles both the beautiful and outrageous ways of the frozen state. "The whole pipeline construction in itself was really boring. But what effect it had on the whole social fabric and nature of the place seemed to me, even ahead of time, to be immense. It really was the Americanization of Alaska, which some people suggested to be the title, but I thought it too cumbersome.
McGinniss spent a year and a half in Alaska, basing himself in Anchorage.
His account, unlike the "other Alaska book" as he called John McPhee's "Coming Into the Country," is "simply reporting the things that struck me as the most bizarre and beautiful."
The two authors never crossed paths in Alaska, though their stays overlapped. McGinniss' "report-what-I-saw" account includes alcohol-crazed Eskimos puking in the snow-white streets, details of his sojourn into Alaska's Brooks Range and encounters with "real Alaskans" such as pilot Cliff Hudson, a man with just half a beard, and Duncan Pryde, a Canadian writer and explorer who had gone from being a celebrated personality in his homeland to being a janitor in Alaska.
Marriages do not fare well in McGinniss' book. Even second and third ones. In fact, the couple McGinniss described as "the most in love," "most perfect couple" he met, recently split. "She just unzipped her sleeping bag and took half of everything and went off with some guy from Anchorage," said McGinniss. "Broke his heart."
"I guess you could say there wasn't much inner life or concentration on the abstract, especially with the Eskimos," he said."It was a pretty primitive society in many ways, and a lot of them don't have enough principles to hold them together in the face of all this attention, and they're just disintergrading, falling apart.
"I've never been anywhere where the extremes stand out so much. On one hand, the pipeline was bringing its high-powered technology and destroying a land. On the other hand, there were the places like the Brooks Range, untouched, beautiful. I felt a conflict between wanting to keep it private and wanting to protect it, and the need to communicate it."
That was one of the reasons that it took Joe McGinniss almost two years to write his fourth book. Another reason, he said, was that he had become acclimated to the unusual ways of Alaska.
"I had lived up there long enough so that things that were so bizarre and striking at first I had come to take for granted. It took months after I returned to realize that, yes, it was as crazy and bizarre and as important as it seemed to be and that, yes, there was a book there."
McGinniss fans hoped it would be the book that finally recaptured for him the acclaim he experienced with "The Selling of the President 1968." His second book and first novel, "The Dream Team," an account of three people who meet in San Francisco (one of whom is a best-selling young author) and travel to a Florida racetrack for a week of living on the wild side, was a critical and commerical failure. His third book, "Heroes," an examination of bygone American figures as well as personal catharsis, also was found wanting by many critics, but McGinniss insisted it was warmly received by people who mattered to him -- "Norman Mailer, to mention a name.
"I feel like some of the less positive reviews were written by McPhe fanatics," said McGinniss. "They didn't like the idea of someone invading the McPhee throne."
One writer even suggested that early success "all but ruined" McGinniss, mentioning his divorce and next two books. "I don't accept that interpretation of my life, that success ruined me," said McGinniss. "I had a best-selling book, and it was great. That's it. Then I wanted to spend a year and a half writing a novel. I was young and had money from my success. aHow many people ever get that opportunity?"
McGinniss points out that there has been much luck in his life, from the day he relayed beer to an aging editor at the Kentucky Derby and ended up with a reporter's job on the Philadelphia Bulletin. From there he went over to the Philadelphia Inquirer, writing a general column from 1966 through 1968. "It was a great time to write a column. Everything happened. I went to 'Nam before the Tet offensive. Then I went to Memphis after the King assassination. Then I flew to Paris for the peace talks. Then I flew back to California when Bobby Kennedy was shot."
And McGinniss fondly recalls the story of his receiving a $500 publisher's advance "just to make a phone call to the Nixon campaign headquarters," which led to his best-selling book.
"Success of failure? That's true only in objective terms, but the fact is, when I wanted to go to Alaska, it wasn't all that difficult for my agent to find a publisher who would come up with a six-figure advance."
McGinniss and the woman who worked for his publisher, now his second wife, Nancy, and their 2-year-old son live in Williamstown, Mass., in an old Victorian-style house. He said he chose Williamstown because "there is nothing else to do but write. How many cups of tea can you make every day?" He likes to jog, and enters marathons now and then, but has allowed baseball to supplant his love for the racetrack. He said his second wife had made it easier for him to write, which has always involved "a great deal of emotional turmoil.
"There is just no tension in my relationship with her. There's so much tension involved in the process of writing -- at least there is for me -- to have tranquility outside the working room is very important."
McGinniss says he is "much wiser than when I started 'The Selling of The President," and he can hardly believe how "naive I was when I was getting the research for that book. I thought to myself, 'Does this stuff really go on, will people believe me when I put it in the book?'" His subsequent success was "like going from one planet to another, some of the most fun I ever had. I thought, 'Hey this is easy, this is great. Traveling around on someone else's money, watching your book sell. Why doesn't everybody do this?'
"Ten years later I feel a little different about it. Basically, this traveling around, it's a pain in the a--."
He is also less vocal about the rewards of his profession.
"Oh, there are occasional sentences, once or twice a month, I say, 'Wow, I like that sentence.' That's really the only time -- that odd moment when you're actually writing. Finishing has never been rewarding for me. In fact it has been the most depressing of all.
"Finishing a book is like a wound. After you're finished and before it's published the wound has finally had timeto heal. And now the publishing process sort of tears it all open again.
"The publishing thing is terrible. Having it published is a roller coaster. I'm trying to work on something new, and the phone keeps ringing. 'You got a review here, you got a review there.' What a pain.
"The worst thing is how hard writing is. It's just lonely, awful, terrible, frustrating and depressing and just arduous and just endless. It's just like having a chronic illness."
Then, no doubt, McGinniss has thought of doing something else since his early success?
"Yeah," he said, "but I can't. For one thing, I don't know how to do anything else. I don't know what else I would do. And because it's like looking for the perfect wave, you can't quit until you write the perfect book.You always know you can do better the next time, and, of course, you never do write the perfect book."
McGinniss is now writing his fifth book, about Jeffrey McDonald, a former Green Beret doctor whose conviction in the murder of his pregnant wife and two daughters was overturned in July. McGinniss lived with MacDonald six weeks up to the 1979 trial in which he was found guilty, an experience McGinniss calls "intense."
But in 1980, the literary hero of 1968 knows that a writer has to be ready for anything.
"I had to buy some new clothes for this book tour -- I haven't bought new clothes in five years -- and I went into a store in Williamstown. A woman in the store kept looking at me, and she said, 'Aren't you Joe McGinniss?' And I said, 'Well, that's right,' and she says, 'I remember you. I used to read your column in Philadelphia. Whatever happened to you after you stopped writting that column?'"