Week passes and Joe McGinniss' biography of Sen...

ONE MORE

September 27, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

ONE MORE week passes and Joe McGinniss' biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy, "The Last Brother," is still not on Publishers' Weekly's best seller list.

Simon & Schuster printed 265,000 copies in anticipation of big sales generated by the controversy the book was expected to generate. Some estimates are that it won't sell a tenth of that printing.

The book did stir a controversy, but it backfired and kept sales low. The book has been savaged by almost every critic who read it. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post called it the worst book he'd ever reviewed, for example. I wrote what I described as "the most critical review of a book I have ever written" in the American Spectator.

The emphasis of every review I've seen but mine has been two-fold: (1) McGinniss made things up, and (2) he plagiarized existing books about the Kennedys -- especially William Manchester's "The Death of a President" and Doris Kearns Goodwin's "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys." My review also made those two points, but added a third. I'll come back to that.

A Washington talk radio show invited me, Doris Goodwin and Evan Thomas to talk about the McGinniss book. He's Newsweek's Washington bureau chief and a noted biographer of Washington types. McGinniss called in and implied that the assault on him and his book was being orchestrated by the Kennedys.

I must confess I suspected that, too. I suspected that I had been invited to WAMU-FM because I had written a favorable book about Ted Kennedy nearly 20 years ago. I wondered if some Kennedy friend recalled that book and suggested me to the talk show host, Dianne Rehm. Was I an unknowing Knight of the Kennedy Roundtable, conscripted to defend Camelot?

(Like most conspiracy theories, this one was bunk. The show called me because a Baltimore friend of the show's producer suggested me, on the suggestion of a colleague who overheard me discussing the review on the phone with my editor.)

Goodwin, Thomas and I agreed that there was no conspiracy, even an unconscious one. We agreed that the reason McGinniss was piled on so was not that Kennedy was his victim, but that the concern about fiction-as-fact journalism and biography had been bubbling up for a long time among journalists and academics.

Then Janet Malcolm had to admit that she used this technique in a New Yorker profile of psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson. Then she lost her highly visible libel trial. It was inevitable after that that "the next guy out the door would get whacked," as Evan Thomas put it.

McGinniss was the next guy out the door, and I believe he would have been whacked even if he had written such a fictive biography of a conservative like, say, Ronald Reagan.

I'll discuss the third point I emphasized in my review in my next column.

Thursday: Where's the rest of him?

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