A scary search for the Real Sarah Palin

The ghost of US President Sarah Palin was stalking the streets of Sydney this week.

Okay, you say, she hasn’t died, and she hasn’t become president so please explain (that was the famous expression of the politician who’s come closest to replicating Sarah Palin in Australia).

The spirit of Sarah the Future President came courtesy of the American journalist and author, Joe McGinniss, who is in Australia for the Sydney Writer’s Festival and to talk about his book, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, a search as successful as it is scary.

It’s scary because she was almost elected Vice-President of the United States, running on a ticket with Senator John McCain, who plucked her out of her native Alaska, where she was a big fish in a small golden pond, to appeal to young, conservative voters across the nation.

She was thrust upon the national and world stage with her speech to the Republican Convention in Minneapolis on September 3, 2008, which “was hailed as ‘dazzling’ and ‘electrifying’ by a national media that had at first viewed her with scepticism,” as McGinniss puts it.

I was part of the sceptical international media, watching her speech as it came into Sky News Australia, but when she told her famous joke — “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick!” — I realised she had the Republicans eating out of her hand. What saved Americans from making a mistake as big as electing Richard Nixon were her subsequent appearances before the media, which proved she had the mentality of a pit bull as well as its aggression.

Joe McGinniss explains the phenomenon of Sarah Palin, going back to the fateful day when he moved next door to the Palins on May 22, 2010. By then she was no longer the Governor of Alaska, but a commentator for Fox News and a potential candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

McGinniss was about to sign a lease on an apartment in Wasilla, Alaska to write his book on Palin, when Catherine Taylor called with an offer to rent her property. It was an offer to good to refuse – a house next to the Palins, which they had rented until the previous October. His friends told him no one could be that lucky, but when Sarah and Todd Palin found out, his luck ran out.

The first encounter with Sarah’s husband, Todd, wearing a “First Dude” t-shirt, ends with him telling McGinniss he won’t be staying there long, and Sarah suggesting on her Facebook page that he would be peering over his deck to look into her young daughter’s bedroom. Despite his friendship with Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News, McGinniss is bucketed by Fox’s Glenn Beck, who calls him “creepy” and “a stalker,” and anonymous social media commentators beg someone to burn his house down. Ironically, McGinniss had asked Todd Palin to call Roger Ailes as a reference.

In the belief that “good fences make good neighbours,” as Robert Frost put it, Todd starts building a new fence twice as high as the old one. Joe McGinniss welcomes it, thinking it will calm Todd and Sarah down. That doesn’t happen for quite a while, but McGinniss continues to talk to everyone he can about the life of Sarah Palin (and many are afraid to talk about the Palins).


McGinniss chronicles Palin’s childhood, her dysfunctional family, and her baptism with her mother in the chilly waters of a nearby lake. The Pastor of the Wasilla Assembly of God church, Paul Riley, who performed the baptisms, said: “Sarah loved the Lord with all her heart.” Her high school days were spent as an athlete, a basketball star who preached religion to her fellow players.  She inscribed Biblical verses in her friends’ yearbooks, and said in her own that her ambition was to broadcast sporting events alongside Howard Cosell, then one of America’s most famous and controversial commentators.

As McGinniss gathered this information, the threats continued, with Glenn Beck leading the charge, saying “I think Todd deserves a medal for why he doesn’t go over there and punch that guy in the face.” McGinniss pointed out that Alaska’s mosquitoes posed more of a threat to Sarah’s children than he did, but “in Palinland, as in war, truth is the first casualty.”

The man who succeeded Sarah Palin as mayor of Wasilla, Verne Rupright, is the first person to ask McGinniss if he wants a gun. He declines, but just about everybody, who’s not a friend of the Palins, makes a similar offer. And if it wasn’t a gun, they offered a blueberry pie. That’s the Alaskan way, says McGinniss, who wrote a book about the state, Going to Extremes, in 1980, adding in The Rogue: “People are so open and giving and trusting, and eager to help you in any possible way, that you quickly come to care about them and to want to help them in return.” The Palin family is the exception that proves the rule.

McGinniss details Palin’s political career, beginning with one of the strangest alliances ever, “dopers and boozers combined with Wasilla’s evangelical Christians to form Sarah’s political base” which resulted in her election as mayor in October 1996. Four days later, she welshed on a promise to appoint her campaign manager as deputy administrator, saying it wouldn’t look right because she was a friend. The real reason: the religious right wouldn’t accept her because she was pro-choice.

Sarah Palin was very good at scheming and lying and saying one thing and doing another. In other words, she was an excellent politician. As e.e. cummings wrote: “A politician is an arse upon/which everyone has sat except a man.” In this case, “a woman.”  It led one of the local papers, the Frontiersman, to write an editorial about Palin’s days as mayor: “Welcome to Kingdom Palin, the land of no accountability.” And another that said: “Wasilla is led by a woman who will tolerate no one who questions her actions or her authority … Mayor Palin fails to have a firm grasp of something very simple: the truth.”

The “Real Sarah Palin” always spoke lovingly of her children and used them at every photo opportunity. Although the “First Dude” had his own problems, he looked after the children when Sarah didn’t.  The legislative director of her gubernatorial campaign, John Bitney, who she later sacked, summed it up: “Todd was both the matriarch and patriarch in that family. That can be a compliment or not, depending on how you want to look at it, but it’s the truth. He did the diapers when the kids were young. He was the disciplinarian. Sarah was all about the photo op.”

Her ambition led her to contest the governorship, which she won in 2005, and she had her sights set on the White House. And a former mayor of Fairbanks, Jim Whitaker, said she had the right stuff when it came to lifting a crowd: “I’ve never seen anyone who could connect with thousands of people the way she can. It’s just too bad she’s unwilling and unable to understand issues.”

You know the rest of the story. Joe McGinnis writes about  how at one of the lowest points of Palin’s political career: “ … like an angel on a personal mission from her Heavenly Father, John McCain swooped down to tap her with his magic wand.”  Thankfully, the magic didn’t work and she didn’t make it to the White House (well, not yet anyway). But she did become a commentator for Fox News, write a book, called Going Rogue, about the presidential campaign, and she continues to keep her name in the limelight. Mitt Romney will lose to Barack Obama later this year, and Sarah Palin will think about a presidential run in 2016, when all the negative publicity has died down. Well, that’s my theory anyway.

As for Joe McGinniss, he wrote on his blog (www.joemcginniss.com) earlier this year: “Andrew Sullivan (British author and columnist), among others, says he thinks The Rogue played a large part in keeping Sarah out of the current race for the Republican nomination. Whether or not that’s true, she is out. In fact, she is done. And I’m done with her.”

Joe, I’m not so sure. If Richard Nixon can make a comeback, and be elected by the American people, so can Sarah Palin. But I sincerely hope you’re right!

On a happier note, after his entertaining Writers’ Festival session with Annabel Crabb yesterday, I got a minute and a half with Joe McGinniss when he signed The Rogue for me. We discussed sportswriters in Philadelphia (he used to be one for The Inquirer newspaper), and his book, Heroes, in which he looks for heroes in America and can’t find one, but does come up with a quote from Arthur Miller about writing and why he still labored to create: “It’s agony. But everyone has agony. The difference is that I try to take my agony home and teach it to sing.” We agree it’s a great quote. And he asked me when I was going back to Philadelphia and how long I was staying. “I’ve been here 41 years,” I replied. “I guess that means you’re staying.” We both laughed.

Raags to riches in India

“If I were to begin life again, I would devote it to music. It is the only cheap and unpunished rapture upon earth.”

That was Sydney Smith, English writer and clergyman (1771-1845), on music as an addiction. Manisha Jolie Amin also has a love affair with the raag, a type of musical form in India – the word raag meaning mood.

I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated what a raag is, but Manisha Amin certainly has, and her novel, Dancing to the Flute, is an ode to its beauty. The tale starts slowly as Kalu, a cheeky street orphan, plays a tune with a leaf rolled into a pipe as he’s perched in a banyan tree in the village of Hastinapore.

Along comes a healer, a Vaid (don’t worry, there’s a glossary in the back of the book), who hears the sound of music: “The sound, sweet and clear, rode the wind, snaking through the tree and down into the village.” When Vaid Dada offers to fix his injured foot, Kalu is reluctant because he can’t pay, but the healer gives him ten rupees and says his music will pay for his treatment.

Okay, you say, another one of those Indian novels, focussing on nature and art and folklore. Wrong.  Once you get through that lyrical first chapter, the story turns to Kalu’s entry into the real world of music, studying under a master musician, brother of the healer.

What sets this first novel apart from others are its well-drawn characters; the use of stories told to the author by her mother, and knowledge of the flute and songs supplied by her father, who played the instrument. It is also beautifully written, deceptively simple in its language, but layered with emotion and empathy.

Kalu loves the flute and wants to be a musician, but is torn between leaving his friends, Bal, a buffalo boy, and, Malti, a servant girl, in the house of Ganga Ba, his first benefactor, and going to the house of Guruji, a teacher, and world-class musician, to learn how to play properly.

After hearing Kalu play a plastic flute, the Vaid tells him: “Never be scared to play. This sound, this music is a part of you, just like the tears on your face. You cannot throw it away. It will not let you’.” He takes Kalu to his brother, who’s retired to the hills, tired of the travel and the cost of fame.

The relationship between Kalu and Guruji is one of the strengths of Dancing to the Flute. Ashwin, Guruji’s right-hand man, is another strong character. When the teacher agrees to accept the street urchin as his student, Ashwin says: “Listen Kalu, you have a gift. Vaid Dada wouldn’t have brought you here otherwise. You need to trust that. And Guruji will make a real musician out of you, Kalu, despite himself.”

Although Vaid Dada denies it to his brother, there is an element of Pygmalion to the story. Guruji teaches him to read and write and the value of books: “Books can teach you things, can take you to places you couldn’t possibly go otherwise. And they are the great equaliser.” And to prove it, when Kalu writes a letter to Ganga Ba, she brings in all the servants to
read it to them.

Amin as narrator tells the story of the wolf boy brought up by a pack of wolves in the jungle, and Malti back in the village remembers the tale, and thinks Kalu is just as interesting, “his foot, the miracle of its healing and his promotion to student from beggar boy made him newsworthy. She hoped he was finding the change easier than she imagined the wolf boy did, or than even she would have. Malti liked things to stay the same.”


Another interesting character is Martin, a Western musician, who has come to Guruji to learn classical Indian music after hearing Ravi Shankar play at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City. Guruji takes Martin on so that he can teach Kalu as well: “I’d like him to be able to read, write and play music the Western way. Not so that he become a Western musician, but – and I mean this, Kalu – so he understands your world as you learn his.”

It was about this time in my reading of the novel that I realised it reminded me of that great Indian novelist, R.K. Narayan, who I first came across in the 1980s when The University of Chicago Press published a series of his books set in Malgudi, a city of his own creation. Graham Greene was a big fan of Narayan. In his praise, Greene talked about writers like Tolstoy, Henry James, Turgenev, Chekhov and Conrad “who hold us at a long arm’s length with their ‘courtly foreign grace’,” and then added: “Narayan (whom I don’t hesitate to name in such a context) more than any of them wakes in me a spring of gratitude, for he has offered me a second home. Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.”

Here’s a little snippet from his first novel, Swami and Friends, published in 1935, about a protest against the British featuring the main character: “Somebody asked him: ‘Young man, do you want our country to remain in eternal slavery?’ ‘No, No.’ Swaminathan replied. ‘But you are wearing a foreign cap.’ Swaminathan quailed with shame. ‘Oh, I didn’t notice,’ he said, and removing his cap flung it into the fire with a feeling he was saving the country.”

I’m not saying Manisha Amin is at Narayan’s level, but this is only her first novel, and like the famous Indian writer concentrates on ordinary people like Malti and Bal and those who gather outside the gate of Guruji’s house to listen to Kalu play. And she takes on tough issues like arranged marriages – Malti’s unhappy union with a man who left her alone until dawn on her wedding night. Amin uses the character of Guruji to teach Kalu valuable lessons about life. After a tragic event, he tells his student: “You will never forget this pain. I know nothing I say will truly make a difference to you at this point. But you can take your experiences and choose how they change you.” That last line is reminiscent of what playwright Arthur Miller said to the writer Joe McGinniss in his book Heroes: “To exist constantly in a state of controlled hysteria. It’s agony. But everyone has agony. The difference is that I try to take my agony home and teach it to sing.” (Joe McGinniss will be speaking about his book on Sarah Palin at the Sydney Writers’ Festival next weekend: http://bit.ly/Hc1ni3 )

The scenes at the end of the book between Kalu and Malti and Bal and Guruji are so moving, I had to wipe away the tears. Unfortunately, that means I can’t give you any details, otherwise it will spoil the ending. All I can say is that there is a lot of dancing to the flute in the final chapter. And Kalu finds that “the real gift he’d been given wasn’t the flute itself, but the way it had helped him to find the people he needed most.”

My only complaint, and it’s a minor one, is that I had trouble understanding the explanations of the raag, with its aalaaps and jors and antaras and bol bandhs which introduce each section of the book – all written by Guruji. I don’t know much about music, except that it can make me happy and move me to tears, but these standfirsts slowed me down, particularly at the end – except the last line of the final introduction to the last part: “It’s the release of breath that the audience makes as the last note dies away.” That I can understand, but I’d suggest putting it all in an introduction so that readers can go back to it, if necessary, as they would with the glossary. And, to be fair, the author has provided a list of books and articles about the music in the novel after the acknowledgements, for those interested.

Speaking of acknowledgements, they are lovely. Born in Kenya and a frequent traveller to India, Manisha Jolie Amin thanks her family for help on the Indian background – the Gujarati language, the songs, the stories et al. She writes: “This book would never have been written had I not experienced the beauty of the raag. My sincere thanks to the musicians that dedicate their life to this form of music.”

I’d like to thank them, too, for making this book possible.

Dancing to the Flute, Manisha Jolie Amin, Allen & Unwin, 342 pages, $29.99

Sarah Ferguson at Press Freedom Dinner


Before I go, a brief wrap on the Media Alliance’s Press Freedom Dinner in Sydney last week. The highlights were the speeches by Laurie Oakes of Channel Nine and Sarah Ferguson of the ABC’s Four Corners – Gold Walkley winners and passionate journalists. Laurie spoke about how the Convergence Review Committee absorbed the work of the Finkelstein inquiry and was well received – “mainly because it recommends an industry-led body to oversee standards, rather than the dreaded statutory authority favoured by Finkelstein.” Laurie Oakes also made the important point that public trust in the media is declining and we need to rebuild that trust.

Sarah’s speech was the “best ever,” in my opinion, on how press freedom often depends on non-journalists like bloggers and citizen journalists and activists like Lyn White of Animals Australia, who shot the footage of cattle slaughter in Indonesia, before Four Corners took their own for their story A Bloody Business. She blasted newspapers and television stations for running stories alleging the ABC’s animal footage being fake, and ABC 24 for repeating the stories without calling her or the producer to check. And she told the lovely story about Hussain Nasir, an Iraqi refugee, who helped Four Corners with their 2010 report, Smugglers’ Paradise, wearing a hidden camera into some of the most dangerous places in Indonesia. A former operative with US Special Forces in Iraq, Hussain told Four Corners: “I must destroy these bad people and the people behind them.” During the course of the program, Hussain risks his life and helps expose six major people smugglers. The UNHCR approves the resettlement of him and his wife and four children, and his family eventually gets to Australia. At the last minute, his resettlement is cancelled. Four Corners and the ABC then worked hard to get him here … and there is a happy ending. During her speech, Sarah Ferguson introduced Hussain Nasir, who was sitting at the ABC table, to the Press Freedom Dinner audience, and he received a long and well-deserved ovation. Bravo Sarah Ferguson, Four Corners and Hussain Nasir.

Lest we forget: Chris Warren, the Federal Secretary of the Media Alliance, told the dinner that 106 journalists and media personnel were killed last year, according to the International Federation of Journalists. For many journalists, the freedom of the press is a cause to die for.

Update: Saturday 5.40pm AEST. And the Newseum in Washington DC will rededicate its Journalists Memorial on Monday, May 14 at 10am (midnight Tuesday Australian EST), honouring journalists and media personnel who died covering the news in 2011. Among those honoured will be reporter Paul Lockyer and cameraman John Bean of the ABC, who were killed in a helicopter crash, along with their pilot Gary Ticehurst, in South Australia last August. Paul Lockyer’s sons, Nicholas and Jamie, will be attending the ceremony on Monday. The memorial honours 2,156 reporters, photographers, broadcaster and news executives from around the world, dating back to 1837. The CEO of the Newseum, James C. Duff, said: “The Newseum is proud to honour these journalists who paid the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of the truth.” Hear, hear!

Update: Friday, May 18, 2.49pm And here’s how the ABC AM program covered the moving ceremony on Tuesday morning (Australian time): http://bit.ly/L1WaeO