Sound and Fury : Writer Joe McGinniss Comes to His Own Defense in the Literary Battle Over 'The Last Brother'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wry, rumpled, best-selling Joe McGinniss suddenly is an author without allies. Worse, he is being condemned by peers and crucified by literarists with careers mightier than his. Their words for his new work are consentient poison: avaricious slop, plagiaristic, journalistic histrionics, unadulterated junk, salacious, mean-spirited and novelistic landfill.

It was almost a surprise that McGinniss arrived here for interviews Wednesday. "Where should I be?" he asks. He tries a tease. "Maybe out having a literary discussion with Jonathan Yardley?"

Yardley is a Washington Post book critic. He read "The Last Brother," McGinniss' unauthorized biography of Teddy Kennedy, then fired a heart shot.

Yardley wrote that it is a genuinely embarrassing shoddy, slimy, meretricious, dishonest and unrelievedly rotten book. Also--in case there was any breath left in McGinniss--the worst book Yardley has reviewed in nearly three decades.

(On Thursday, the New York Times said it wasn't a bad book; it was an awful book. Time. Newsweek. U.S. News & World Report. The full firing squad has formed, its aim deadly.)

Yet here is rangy McGinniss, very much alive, fighting back in chinos and too-long shirt sleeves, Irish cocky and joking about meeting in his publisher's Manhattan conference room without windows: "They're afraid I'd jump out."

He points to litter left by earlier interviewers--his Evian, their plastic glasses, everybody's paper scraps--and a stack of his Kennedy books.

"They (reporters) come in here, say the book stinks, and throw it over there," McGinniss says. "I get more books that way." He's still joking.

Defensive humor--plus an alligator hide that was his advice from Arthur Miller and solid belief in the dank stories he airs--armors McGinniss, 50, against the rages his books stir. Usually among the people he writes about.

In 1968, he published his first volume, "The Selling of the President," an indecent expose of the hidden persuaders and advertising that helped Richard Nixon to the White House. It upset more Republicans than Barry Goldwater's defeat four years earlier.

There was "Fatal Vision."

It was the brutal saga of Green Beret physician Jeffrey MacDonald, now serving three life sentences for murdering his wife and two children. MacDonald filed a $15-million breach-of-contract suit against McGinniss, claiming the author betrayed their agreement to write an account portraying MacDonald's innocence. There was a hung jury in Los Angeles, then dismissal of the suit after McGinniss agreed to a $325,000 settlement.

Then came "Blind Faith," which told of the end of a Toms River, N.J., woman whose 1984 murder was arranged by her husband. McGinniss was censured, almost sued, for changing names and misrepresenting roles played by some sources.

Now comes "The Last Brother."

And within the recent trashing, believes McGinniss, is certainly the fury and, possibly, media retaliation engineered by the book's principal: Sen. Edward Moore Kennedy (D-Mass.).

"This has been a practice of theirs (the Kennedy family) over the years," McGinniss claims. He says a Boston Globe reporter recently wrote that the Kennedys " 'only had two approaches to journalists, either buying or demonizing them.'

"They didn't buy me."

Yet, McGinniss continues, it's not simply a case of shooting the messenger: "They want to . . . mutilate the body so badly that no other messenger is ever going to come down the pike."

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"The Last Brother" was rushed into bookstores this week--the original release was October--in an unshrouded attempt to capitalize on four weeks of criticism bordering on mayhem.

In its kindest light, the book has been seen as little more than a 621-page rewrite of 74 other volumes on the Kennedys; a familiar narrative garnished only by the author's attempts to enter the mind and soul of Ted Kennedy during moments of crisis fringing on collapse between 1963 and 1969.

Black, turgid years indeed. They included the assassination of President Kennedy. Also the murder of Bobby Kennedy. Then Teddy Kennedy's plane crash, his drinking, his womanizing, his failed marriage and the drowning death of a young woman when the world learned the correct pronunciation of Kopechne and Chappaquidick. Except, at the time, Kennedy didn't know how to spell Kopechne in his handwritten police report.

In May, publishers Simon & Schuster circulated the first 127 pages of "The Last Brother" at an American Booksellers Assn. conference in Miami. They dealt with Teddy Kennedy's acts and reactions in the days after President Kennedy's assassination. On the copyright page was a single paragraph noting that "some thoughts and dialogue attributed to figures in this narrative were created by the author."

McGinniss approved the caveat. He now admits his mistake and says its true meaning was the casualty of compressed writing. For in the book, only one six-word quotation from a legislative aide could not be substantiated, he says. All other quotes, all facts, all timetables of events were taken from existing volumes whose accuracy had never been questioned, he adds.

The disclaimer was yanked and McGinniss replaced it with a five-page author's note. It says that although he had not interviewed Kennedy for the book, years of immersion in research allowed him to interpret the man and look out from inside his psyche.

"I have tried to distill an essence," McGinniss wrote. "I have tried to convey to a reader what it might have been like to be Teddy Kennedy."

But the explanation--dated July 2 and now included in the finished book--was two months too late.

Long before it went on sale--and on the basis of those first pages and the offending caveat--"The Last Brother" was gored.

Said Kennedy biographer Arthur Schlesinger: "For a reputable publisher to present it as if this were a biography . . . is ridiculous. It reads like something out of True Confessions or the National Enquirer."

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Early this month, John Taylor, contributing editor to New York magazine, opened a second front. In a story headlined "Clip Job," Taylor reported that much of McGinniss' opening material had been taken from "The Death of a President" by William Manchester.

Precise words and phrases had not been pirated. But in more than 100 cases, facts and descriptions had been rewritten by McGinniss from Manchester. McGinniss credits Manchester's writing six times in the book and includes him in the bibliography.

But there are no footnotes. So Taylor accuses McGinniss of circumventing journalistic standards and "the convention of scholarship by claiming the privileges of the nonfiction novelist."

In his defense, McGinniss says he only followed standard practice. After all, he says, Manchester did not include footnotes in "Death of a President." Also, a Manchester book written in 1983, "One Brief, Shining Moment," contained numerous references that appeared 20 years earlier in Hugh Sidey's "John F. Kennedy."

McGinniss says published facts "are not the property of the author who first put them there, and you cannot copyright history."

Manchester, however, has said he might sue McGinniss for plagiarism. Or at least copyright infringement.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys," says McGinniss also borrowed material from her book. She has made no decision on legal action pending discussions with her publisher. Ironically, it is Simon & Schuster.

And Wednesday, in a closing volley approved by Sen. Kennedy, assistant Pam Hughes said that McGinniss' book is "the most cynical form of exploitation of the Kennedy family for profit.

"When the author wasn't fantasizing, he was apparently plagiarizing. The only people taking the book seriously seem to be the lawyers."

Hughes says Kennedy has a copy of the book, but no intention of reading it.

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If McGinniss has been flattened by the one-sided war, it doesn't show. A $1-million book advance can soften many ego blows.

He acknowledges he takes risks as a writer. That includes "the risk of offending some people." Still, he is perplexed by the deep negativism to his new work "because people don't normally react with such vitriol. What is it that is so upsetting about this (book) to certain people?"

It could be, he suggests, that the Kennedys, no matter how tarnished their era and mystique in recent years, remain deeply buried in the nation's emotional fabric: "People hate to see dreams die. We still have this dream that Jack was real and Camelot did exist and we have this longing to return to that."

Although Kennedy's office denies a campaign to smear the author or his book, McGinniss remains unconvinced. It has been reported and confirmed, he says, that Kennedy telephoned Manchester and "urged him to be more vocal" in his protests. He believes long, detailed comparisons between his and Manchester's writings have been leaked to the media through publishing houses friendly to Kennedy.

McGinniss is monitoring the damage. His heaviest criticism has come from East Coast media outlets where he believes the Kennedys have "a lot of influence, both socially and professionally. I counted more than 25 wholly negative stories from seven outlets alone prior to the book's publication. I can't remember any instance where that much negative publicity, and that degree of vitriol has been expended on a book in advance of its publication."

McGinniss also believes the Kennedys are protecting more than Teddy Kennedy from the book--but also the next generation of Kennedys, the sons and daughters who have started following their fathers' footsteps to public office.

"Other than the trust funds, the only real legacy they have to pass on to the next generation is the mystique, the legend," he says. "Therefore, anything that would threaten to undermine that is something they would react to swiftly. . . . They don't need a book now that reawakens interest in Joe Kennedy's ties to organized crime. And there's a (NBC) miniseries looming."

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Still, much of the criticism against McGinniss involves his sense of literature, not politics. In particular, he's been hammered for regurgitating old, unsubstantiated speculation that Joseph Kennedy had a daughter, Rosemary, institutionalized then given a frontal lobotomy allegedly to silence her charges of sexual molestation.

McGinniss says he was trying to prove a point, not extend a grubby finger: "The point . . . is that documentation that could resolve this question has not been made available by the family. So these kinds of speculation are going to continue as long as they keep all the papers locked up and hidden from public view."

Another section implies that after John Kennedy's assassination, brother Teddy, distraught and pressured by family, walked on a beach with suicide in his thoughts.

States the paragraph: "Suppose--not that there is any evidence he considered this--he suddenly just veered left, away from his sister and plunged, fully clothed into the rolling, frigid waters of Nantucket Bay? Just swam out into the mist until exhausted?"

If there is no evidence, why suggest it?

McGinniss says it was a metaphorical reference "and I might as well have had a sea gull land on the beach and have Teddy wish that he could have flown away. I've suggested that it would not have been an aberrational moment if he were to look out at the ocean and say: 'Gosh, just get out there, just plunge, just disappear.' Not that he was seriously contemplating suicide. I'm certainly not arguing that."

He does argue that his book unearths no new and dirtier linen. Nor is it the end product of original research. McGinniss says the only thing new is his view--"the interpretation, the refocusing, the prism through which I'm looking at Teddy Kennedy."

He believes front-parlor psychology is a valid technique. Truman Capote used it, as did Norman Mailer.

"What interested me was: How do you cope with the pressures of being a myth when you are having enough trouble being a man? I have posed the question. I have suggested answers. I have written a book about it with Teddy Kennedy center stage," he says. "It remains one man's opinion. It is not the definitive biography of Teddy Kennedy, nor did I intend it to be."

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The criticism, of course, hurts.

"But does that mean I should modify my approach to my work in order to be more popular to more people in certain circles?" McGinniss asks. "I haven't for 25 years and I don't think I'm going to start now."

He claims that he has developed a deeper understanding of Teddy Kennedy: There were too many boarding schools before Kennedy was a teen; the enormous shadows of three older brothers; even family photographs show Teddy Kennedy in his delegated position--off to the side, never a full participant.

McGinniss insists his book does not bury Teddy Kennedy: "I did not write it to either help him or hurt him. I wrote it to try and describe him. And I think that people who read the book, people who don't like him, will come away with a better understanding of why he may have acted in those ways that caused them to dislike him."

In many instances, McGinniss considers Kennedy an effective legislator, and the author pledges to put his trust in that belief:

"As a resident of Massachusetts, I still plan to vote for him next year."

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