The story may be true names aren't changed


July 02, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

I was all set to do a column on Joe McGinniss' new biography of Ted Kennedy, the one in which McGinniss makes up what people are thinking and quotes people he never talked to, when the phone rang.

"Roger," Bill Clinton said, "I need to talk to you."

Wait a second, Mr. President, I said. How do I know this is a real phone call or just a journalist using Joe McGinniss' new technique?

"What new technique?" Clinton said.

Well, I said, the president of Simon & Schuster said that in McGinniss' book "there are certain scenes where he has used his imagination, based on his research, to infer a thought process or perhaps even a conversation in order to give the scene and what's going on its full expression."

"But what on earth does that mean?" Bill Clinton said.

I think it means McGinniss made the stuff up, I said. For instance, he describes a scene in which Ted Kennedy and his sister, Eunice Shriver, are trying to break the news to their father that John F. Kennedy has been assassinated.

McGinniss writes that Senator Kennedy "wanted to speak" and "He was going to speak. He just needed one more moment to think of how to begin. And so he stood at the foot of the bed, as mute as his father, his hands clasped behind his back, unable to look the old man in the eye.

"Finally, Eunice could take it no more. She threw herself on the bed and began to shout: 'Daddy! Daddy, there's been an accident. But Jack's O.K. Jack was in an accident, Daddy.' "

There is only one problem with that riveting scene, Mr. President, I said. Joe McGinniss did not interview Senator Kennedy nor Joe Kennedy nor Eunice Shriver nor was he in the room.

"And you think I am the same figment of a writer's imagination?" the president sputtered, clasping his hands behind his back, which made it very difficult for him to hold the phone. "I am calling because I need advice from you! There's Bosnia, the economy, health care and . . ."

Sorry, Mr. President, I said, that's my Call Waiting.

"Poopsie?" the breathless voice said and I knew there was only one person who called me that.

"Poopsie?" Sharon Stone asked again. "I need you, Poopsie. I want you. I must have you."

Is that really you, Sharon? I asked. Or is this an inferred conversation based on research?

"Oh, how could you?" Sharon said, clasping her hands and stamping her feet. "How could you believe that I would sink as low as that horrible McGinniss person?"

But McGinniss is making out like a bandit! I said. Vanity Fair is excerpting two chapters of his book and NBC is planning a mini-series. So why should anybody waste time on actual interviews any more?

"I don't think you could call our 'interview' a waste of time, could you, Poopsie?" Sharon purred.

Ding-dong! Ding-dong!

That's the front door, I told her. I've got to answer it.

And who should be standing there but Joe McGinniss with his hat in his hands, which were, as a matter of fact, clasped behind his back.

"I've got writer's block!" he wailed. "I've got to do the animated Sunday cartoon version of my book on Kennedy and I am stuck for dialogue!"

But how can you be stuck for dialogue if you just make it up? I asked.

"That's the trouble," McGinniss said. "I can no longer remember what real people sound like. Check this out. Do you think Ted Kennedy, when he swam ashore after Chappaquiddick, would have said: 'Like, wow, man. What a bummer. Next time, I'm going to wear my old clothes. For sure.' "

Gee, Joe, I said, that doesn't sound much like Ted Kennedy.

"You've actually talked to Kennedy?" McGinniss asked.

Sure, I said. A few times.

"What does he sound like?" McGinniss asked. "What does he look like?"

You mean you don't even know what he looks like? I asked.

"No!" McGinniss said. "I never go out anymore. I never watch TV or read a newspaper. I don't have time. I'm too busy writing non-fiction!"

Joe, I said, I've got to get back to the president and to Sharon Stone, but I want to pay you one compliment before I go. You have truly achieved something unique.

"I have?" McGinniss said.

Yeah, I said. You are are the only person on earth who could make me feel sorry for Ted Kennedy.

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