Tuesdays with Moron: Chatological Humor Update

May 13, 2014

Gene's next monthly chat is Tuesday, May 27 at noon. You may submit questions here.

Although this weekly edition provides an update between live chats, it is not and never will be a "blog," even though many persons keep making that mistake. One reason for the confusion is the Underpants Paradox: Blogs, like underpants, contain "threads," whereas this chat contains no "threads" but, like underpants, does sometimes get funky and inexcusable.

Greetings, update readers.

Last week, I spoke at the memorial service for Joe McGinniss. I was the second speaker. The first speaker was ... Roger Ailes. It turns out that Ailes and McGinniss had remained friends for the half century since the publication of "The Selling of the President 1968," a book about the role of public relations in packaging Richard Nixon for the presidential election. Ailes had been a young Nixon consultant at the times, and trusted McGinniss, and joked at his Memorial that this had been naive and unwise. Clearly not, since they had remained close for 50 years afterwards. But, Ailes said, they never went anywhere in public together because of how it would have looked to fans of both men. (Joe's politics were roughly my politics.)

For those people who claimed McGinniss was a lifelong skunk who burned his subjects, it is a pretty interesting fact that two of his closest friends were people whom he'd written about in a confrontational way. Not just Ailes, but also Wade Smith, who was Jeffrey MacDonald's trial lawyer.

Wade spoke at the memorial service via video. He told of the time that Joe's book "Going to Extremes" came out, about Alaska. He sent Wade a copy , then phoned him and asked him how he liked it. Wade said he'd loved it (though he actually hadn't read it.) Some months later, Joe called back and said how pleased he was that Wade had liked it. Well, what's not to like, Wade said. Great book.

A few months later, Wade got a call from a friend of his who said, "Have you read 'Going to Extremes"? and when Wade said no, the friend said "turn to page 86." It turns out that McGinniss had created a character named Wade Smith (or, more likely used a pseudonym for a real person) who was the vilest, most prejudiced a-hole in the whole book.

When Wade called Joe up, the first thing Joe said was, "So. You finally read the book, huh?"

Joe's widow, Nancy Doherty, asked me to speak about "Fatal Vision." I decided to let it all hang out. . This is the short speech I gave. I was secretly hoping that Janet Malcolm would attend. Alas, no.

--

My following Roger Ailes up here is a tribute to the wonderfully eclectic nature of Joe’s relationships. As I have written before, I am so liberal I should be tried for treason and executed.

(In the audience, Ailes applauded this idea.)

I am here to be the the proverbial poop in the punch bowl. I’m the guy who never got the memo about civility, the one that says you’re not supposed to say negative things at a memorial service.

I’m in this position because, for various reasons, I have become expert on exactly two items in life: A certain 40 year old murder case, and the rhythms and conventions of American journalism. Unfortunately, these two things happen to collide here rather dramatically, to make a point that needs to be made. So here goes. I’ll do this fast. But with joy!

Thirty-one years ago, Joe McGinniss wrote a book about a murder. It was titled "Fatal Vision." Six years after that, a writer chose to savage Joe while publicly working out some of her own professional and personal issues. She did all of this in the pages of a prestigious publication.

She wrote that "Fatal Vision" was fatally flawed because the author had betrayed his subject, a sin she saw not as a single transgression but as a particularly egregious example of what ALL writers do to ALL their subjects when operating in the conscienceless, blood-drenched abattoir that is journalism. This curiously self-loathing thesis found some traction, or, as we in journalism also like to say, it "had legs." That is because journalists are both thin-skinned and self-absorbed, which is a terrible combination. When something like that story alights on journalism, it pierces the skin and then gets horribly sucked in, where it fuses with all the internal organs and eventually is indistinguishable from the whole. Tooth-gnashing resulted, and hand wringing . . . and hand gnashing and tooth wringing. Sins were expiated, souls were unburdened, and whatnot. All of that was kind of funny, really, unless you were Joe.

What was not funny was that the furor helped give some sort of vague credibility to the idea that maybe Jeffrey MacDonald was actually innocent, railroaded by a conspiracy of incompetent cops and dishonest prosecutors in the dark thrall of a book that, uh, had not been written yet.

This idea was propelled by small industry of the murderer’s defenders and apologists, including a rotating army of appellate lawyers, who were well remunerated, and an army of gullible loonies, who needed no prodding, and finally Errol Morris, who should have known better and by now, I strongly suspect, wishes he had.

So, just for the record:

"Fatal Vision" is among the greatest nonfiction books ever written about a crime. It was impeccably reported, and honestly told -- it was ingeniously told -- and it provided as illuminating a look into the mind of a psychopath as anything written before or since. It’s an important piece of journalism. “The Journalist and the Murderer” was an exercise in paranoia and Maoist style self-denunciation that only masqueraded as an important piece of journalism. It was based upon a preposterous assertion, which was this:

That after it became manifest to Joe McGinniss that Jeffrey MacDonald was in fact among the most despicable criminals in American history -- his guilt is not and never was seriously in doubt by anyone who really understands this case and is not paid to defend him -- that when this sad fact became manifest, it was incumbent upon Joe to march up to MacDonald and inform him that he no longer believed him. That Joe was morally obliged to invite him to withdraw his cooperation, possibly killing the book, certainly castrating the book, based on some sort of presumption of journalistic chivalry, a supposed code of conduct so high-minded and divorced from practicality and commonsense that it never actually existed on any level at any time in American journalism.

Listen:

When a writer enters into an agreement with a source to tell his story, there is always an accompanying covenant. This will be acknowledged by, you know, every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on. In return for fair and objective reporting, the subject is promising to tell the truth. If the subject lies to the writer, all bets are off. The degree to which this principle attaches is directly proportional to the enormity of the lie that was told.

It is impossible for any subject to have lied more profoundly to a writer than the lie Jeffrey MacDonald told to this writer – and to his own lawyers, and to a jury, and to the people volunteering their time on his behalf. The lie was claiming that he was NOT the guy who had accidentally killed his five-year-old in a rage. Then deliberately murdered his wife because she had seen too much and was now a threat to his liberty. And then, after thinking about what he had done, and what sort of unencumbered playboy life he wished to embark on after this regrettable event, this is the guy, the doctor, who walked into his sleeping two-year-old’s bedroom, lifted her nightgown so he could better gauge her anatomy, and stabbed her 31 times with a knife and an icepick along her heart, pulmonary vein and aortic arch. That this was the guy to whom Joe supposedly owed the courtesy of full disclosure, at peril to his book, and equally important, to the truth.

It was nonsense when she wrote it, it remains nonsense 25 years later.

Most of the people in this room knew Joe far better than I did. I liked him a lot but the fact is he and I met exactly three times, spread out over two and a half decades. I’m pointing this out because you should understand I’m not up here trying to polish or rehabilitate the legacy of an old friend. I am trying to help right a 25 year old wrong, and it seemed like the perfect forum in which to do it. Thank you.

Oh, wait. Before we go, I want to state the obvious.

If you are in any way bothered by the Michael Sam kiss, and you would not have been bothered by a boyfriend-girlfriend or husband-wife kiss, you are a bigot. End of discussion.

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Gene Weingarten
Gene Weingarten is the humor writer for The Washington Post. His column, Below the Beltway, has appeared weekly in the Post's Sunday magazine since July 2000 and has been distributed nationwide on The Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service. He was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.

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