Joe McGinniss, 71, best-selling author, former Inquirer columnist

Posted: March 12, 2014

JOE McGINNISS, who went from controversial stints at the old Evening Bulletin and the Inquirer to best-sellerdom as a writer of blistering books, died yesterday in Worcester, Mass., of prostate cancer at age 71.

McGinniss wrote hard-hitting books on many subjects, from Richard Nixon ( The Selling of the President 1968) to Sarah Palin ( The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin). The Palin book led him to move in next door to her Alaska home for several months.

As a sports reporter for the Bulletin, he so angered Wilt Chamberlain with columns about his lousy foul shooting and other criticisms that Wilt shoved him into a locker at Convention Hall along with the late Daily News sportswriter Bill Conlin, who had tried to protect McGinniss.

Born in New York City, Joe was fresh out of Holy Cross when the Bulletin hired him. Conlin wrote that McGinniss was known for "hanging his subjects by using off-the-record material."

When the Inquirer hired Joe at age 23, editor John Gillen wanted to put some life into his moribund newspaper. He got it.

"Within seconds," wrote Bernard McCormick in 1983, "McGinniss became the only game in town. Wherever the day's news was, he was. If somebody shot a cop, the bullet grazed McGinniss'ear. He could be amusing and he could be ironic, but he was there."

The Inquirer sent him to Vietnam, and he sent back vivid portraits of soldiers' experiences.

"He was, simply, necessary reading in Philadelphia," McCormick wrote, "and nobody before or since has been quite like him."

Howard Cosell, the legendary sports broadcaster, told McGinniss in an interview in New York after The Selling of the President 1968 came out: "God, are you going to be big in this town! This town is going to love you. You're a big, young, good-looking skinny Irish son-of-a-bitch and you act shy. You're not, you little . . . but you act it and this town loves guys like you."

A reviewer of The Selling of the President compared it with Theodore White's measured The Making of the President, and wrote that while White was the voice of the liberal consensus, "with its sonorous even-keeled wisdom, McGinniss was an emissary from the New Journalism with his countercultural accents, youthful iconoclasm, and nonchalant willingness to bare his left-leaning political views."

McGinniss earned the enmity of convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald, who said he had believed that McGinniss would write a sympathetic book. The book, Fatal Vision, was anything but. And MacDonald, convicted of stabbing and beating to death his pregnant wife and two small children, sued, to no avail. He's languishing in prison now.

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