Still, there are some enduring verities of the political beat—among them that every four years, impressionable reporters claim to have discovered the wizard with the secret formula for clouding the minds of the voters. A few years back, Democratic psychologist Drew Westen was all the rage because of his purported understanding of The Political Brain. On the GOP side, pollster Frank Luntz has been gushingly praised for his supposed mastery of political buzz words.
In The Selling of the President, McGinniss stumbles into the same trap when he ballyhoos an advertising gimmick called the Semantic Differential Test. There is the obligatory we-have-spun-straw-into-gold quote from an advertising guru: “The semantic differential is the most sensitive instrument known to modern market research.” In truth, the semantic differential is little more than a fever chart rating the candidates according to personality attributes like weak-strong and stingy-generous.
To his credit, McGinniss also highlights a young political demographer named Kevin Phillips who makes pronouncements such as, “The Democratic Party will not carry Oklahoma again for the rest of this century.” That one belongs in the Political Prophesy Hall of Fame: Oklahoma has gone Republican in the last 11 presidential races, with Jimmy Carter the only Democrat who came close to winning the state.
There are whiffs in the McGinniss book of the press-hating paranoia that gave rise to the Enemies List and Watergate. But Nixon in 1968 never dared run the kind of stealth campaign that has sadly become the modern norm. On the Sunday before the election, Nixon was a guest (albeit a reluctant one) on Meet the Press.
What a quaint notion and what a breach of message discipline: A presidential contender, locked in a close election, actually answering questions from reporters less than 48 hours before the polls opened. When Richard Nixon represents the good old days, it represents a sad commentary on how far we have come in turning presidential politics into a branch of robotics.