Remembrance of Times Past and Vale Joe McGinniss

I always wanted to be the managing editor of The New York Times.
Okay, you say, nearly every journalist would say that, but first you have to work there. Well, I had a slim chance to get a Times job back in 1966 when I moved to New York to attend graduate school at NYU. Earlier that year I had met the paper’s Washington Bureau Chief, Tom Wicker, when he came to Villanova University to give a speech.
Wicker was one of the most respected journalists of his era. He covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and as the lone Times reporter in Dallas that fateful day in November 1963, dictated the story from a phone booth from notes scribbled on a White House itinerary sheet – a story that led page one and filled all of page two of the paper the following day. It made Tom Wicker top gun of The New York Times.
Tom had reluctantly agreed to give me a reference for the Times, saying he didn’t know me except that I was the editor of the student newspaper, The Villanovan, when we met. But he liked my resume and suggested he would say I had potential (or something like that, I can’t remember his exact words!). So I applied for a job as a news clerk, which is what the Times called a copyboy (or girl, not that I saw many then!), and thought I had a chance – a slim one, as mentioned above.
Little did I know that Tom Wicker as Washington Bureau Chief was out of favour with the executive editor of the Times, Turner Catledge, along with a few other editors in the New York office. Why? As former managing editor of the Times, Arthur Gelb, put it in his 2003 memoir of the paper, City Room, Catledge “grumbled about Wicker’s leisurely pace as chief of the bureau. Wicker … was finding it difficult to concentrate on his supervisory role while also writing an editorial page column three times a week.” Author Gay Talese also wrote about the friction between the bureaus in his 1969 book on the Times, The Kingdom and the Power. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
I was thinking about this last night as I was listening to Carol Giacomo’s address about President Barack Obama’s foreign policy in his second term at an event sponsored by the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Ms Giacomo, a long-time diplomatic correspondent for Reuters, is now a member of The New York Times editorial board, as well as the Council on Foreign Relations.
She gave an interesting speech about how difficult it was going to be for the President to do anything on Ukraine, Asia or the Middle East or a host of other issues, with the Republicans “beating up on him” all the time. She also told the gathering at the Raddison Blu Plaza hotel in Sydney about how the paper has spoken out very strongly against Edward Snowden, the former intelligence contractor, whose leak of classified information has upset a lot of countries. And in an answer to my question about whether Barack Obama will ever fulfil his promise to close Guantanamo Bay, she said she didn’t know if it was possible for him to do that before the end of his presidency. But it was good to hear that the Times Editorial Board has been critical of him over the issue.
What made me reminisce was her description of how the 15 members of the Board sit around and talk about what’s going in the paper that day. It’s a diverse group of people, and each has their area of expertise. For a brief moment, I pictured myself in that room – addressing them as managing editor. We can all dream, can’t we?
While I’m on the subject of journalism and newspapers, it would be remiss not to mention the death of journalist and author, Joe McGinniss (photo above by Dan Joling, Associated Press), in the United States, at the age of 71. The author of The Selling of the President 1968; an inside look at how the political marketers got Richard Nixon elected; Fatal Vision, a best-selling true crime story about Jeffrey MacDonald, who murdered his pregnant wife and two small children; and The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, a controversial biography of the former Alaskan Governor and Vice-Presidential candidate.
Joe McGinniss was in Australia in May, 2012 for the Sydney Writer’s Festival to promote the book and talk about his career. I got him to sign The Rogue, and chatted to him very briefly after his entertaining Festival interview with Annabel Crabb. He recalled his days as a sportswriter and columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and signed the book: “To Tom, With all best wishes to a Philadelphian. Joe McGinniss.” I wrote a post about the session:
I’ve liked all of Joe’s books, but Gene Weingarten, a Pulitzer Prize-winning humour columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a tribute to his friend yesterday in which he blasted The Rogue: “Much as I hate to agree with Sarah Palin about anything, his 2011 biography of her was thin and crappy and lazy, filled with poorly sourced innuendo.”
But Weingarten praises Joe’s early works, and has this to say about Fatal Vision: “… I am writing this because of Fatal Vision, which was as good and as rigorous a work of nonfiction as there is. It belongs right here, in the same sentence as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which may be the greatest true-crime book ever written.”
Weingarten claims the decline in Joe’s career stems from Janet Malcolm’s famous piece in the New Yorker, “The Journalist and the Murderer,” in which she calls him a journalistic con man for getting unrestricted access to MacDonald’s trial, then being convinced of his guilt and never telling the convicted man he changed his mind. Malcolm also targeted the ethics of journalism and some journalists.
While Weingarten acknowledged Janet Malcolm scored points in some of her criticism, he says she unfairly pilloried McGinniss, and that Fatal Vision is the book for which he will be remembered: “It was a great book. It was a fair book. It is Joe McGinniss’s masterpiece. If you are a writer, and you want a clinic in muscular storytelling — how it can and should be done — read Fatal Vision.”
My favourite book of his is Heroes, in which Joe McGinniss travels the country looking for heroes, but does not find any. He writes: “At least not of the kind I was looking for … No one who, as critic Ihab Hassan put it, ‘unites the course of history and the stream of dreams’.” McGinniss concluded that we will have to get by with private symbols, and he was working on his: “Such as: that writing about an experience, or life, can give it meaning. That writing about the loss of illusions – the vanishing of heroes – can compensate, in however small and unsatisfactory a way, for the no longer deniable fact that they are gone.”
Vale Joe McGinniss.

American heroes: ‘Dollar Bill’ and Stan the Man

A hero is someone you look up to, someone you can depend on in any situation, someone who would give up his or her life to save others.

I’ve been thinking about heroes ever since I met the writer, Joe McGinniss, at the Sydney Writer’s Festival last month (see previous blog: ).  McGinniss wrote a terrific book called Heroes in 1976, about spending three years searching for the “vanished American hero,” a futile search but a rewarding one for the reader. He was in Sydney to talk about his recent book, The Rogue, on former US Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, but she certainly showed no signs of heroism. During his Festival discussion with Annabel Crabb, McGinniss mentioned his early career as a sportswriter with the Philadelphia Bulletin, and how he got into trouble with the city’s professional basketball team, the 76ers, by being critical of their star centre, Wilt Chamberlain. It was an example, McGinniss said, of how writing the truth about people could get you into hot water.

Any mention of heroes and basketball makes me think of a man who should have been president, and actually ran for the office in 2000, but suffered a few bouts of atrial fibrillation, and really didn’t have the numbers to defeat Al Gore for the Democratic nomination. He had to drop out of the race.

His name is Bill Bradley, a New Jersey Senator for 18 years, a Rhodes Scholar, a professional basketball player for the New York Knicks and a star forward for Princeton University, an author, a national radio host … and one of my heroes. I even wrote to his press secretary at the time, offering to help with his campaign, but they didn’t need anyone, and then it was all over.  His nickname was “Dollar Bill,” which I always thought referred to his ability to hit the money shot, but apparently it was his ability to spend wisely!

I was wondering what Bradley was doing now, and was about to Google him when I tuned into this week’s Meet the Press, the long-running American version on NBC, now broadcast on the Seven Network on Monday mornings. And there he was on the last segment of the show, being interviewed by David Gregory, about his new book, We Can All Do Better. (

It’s an idealistic, American view of what the individual can do to make the nation better. Bill Bradley is a straight shooter – in fact, he had one of the best jump shots I’ve ever seen – both on and off the court. It makes you wonder what would have happened had his heart problems not emerged during the campaign, and if he had managed to snare the nomination from Al Gore. Would he have been able to beat George W. Bush in an election that turned on hanging chads? I’d like to think so.

There are recommendations for the book on his website from businessmen, writers, former politicians and prominent media figures. Among them: former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger; presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin; author and television presenter, Bill Moyers; former NBC News anchor, Tom Brokaw; former Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew; and CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz (Bradley’s a member of the Starbucks board of directors). You can read chapter one of We Can All Do Better on Bradley’s website:

Bradley’s views on ethics in America are expressed in that chapter, which should resonate in Australia: “Everywhere people are making excuses for their failures, from the athletic field to the corporate boardroom, and then salving their mistakes in the warm balm of public relations … I had a friend who worked at the highest levels in three major investment banks over twenty-five years. He told me that once when he refused to work on a deal because he didn’t think it was right, the head of the firm came to him and said: ‘I know what we’re doing is unethical, even immoral, but I can assure you it’s not illegal’.”

And what he has to say about the media is incisive and accurate: “Exacerbating these failings is a mass media that champions the superficial, sensational and extreme view. Style, social trends, sports and popular culture are often covered in greater detail than foreign and economic policy … Thanks to demographic targeting, a TV network knows what the viewers of particular programs care about  – what appeals to their tastes and moves them to action – and playing to these preconceived ideas ensures a high Nielsen rating and consequent healthy advertising revenues. Fox News Channel is one of the most profitable news organisations in the world.”

Lee Kuan Yew’s praise for Bradley’s thesis is particularly relevant for Australian politicians: “He is particularly incensed with the gridlock in the political system, that Congress is more interested in scoring partisan points rather than moved by what is for the common good. Bradley has a good grasp of the huge challenge China poses for America … and what it takes for America to compete with China.”

And while we’re on the subject of heroes, I came across another one after I ordered a book from Amazon by Jimmy Breslin (another of my heroes of the writing kind), a biography of the baseball magnate, Branch Rickey, who broke the color bar in the sport by signing the first African American player, Jackie Robinson, to his Brooklyn Dodgers. I’ve written about Rickey in another blog ( ).

Amazon had the usual come-on about the book on my other hero: “Customers who bought this item, also bought this one.” Well, they were right. I also bought the book about my favourite baseball player, Stan Musial, of the St Louis Cardinals. “Stan the Man,” as he was known, was one of the greatest baseballers of all time, and George Vecsey, a sports columnist for the New York Times, has written an excellent biography of the man who had to play in the shadow of Joe DiMaggio, the legendary New York Yankee, and Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox slugger.

Stan Musial: An American Life is a classic tale of a Polish kid from small-town Pennsylvania, who’s humble, hard-working and has a dream – to play in the major leagues. It’s also the story of a kinder, gentler America in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, when neighbours were friendly, the suburbs were safe, the fathers put up lights on the roof at Christmas, and everybody went to church.

It was also a time of racism, and Breslin’s book on Branch Rickey and his fight to get Jackie Robinson into baseball chronicles that period. And Stan Musial, as one of baseball’s most respected players, got involved in the Robinson controversy, when a sportswriter reported that the St Louis Cardinals were planning to strike rather than play against the black Brooklyn Dodger in 1947.

The National League President, Ford Frick, gave the Cardinals owner this message for his team: “Tell them this is America, and baseball is America’s game. Tell them that if they go on strike, for racial reasons, or refuse to play a schedule game they will be barred from baseball even though it means the disruption of a club or whole league.”

Frick once said, according to Vecsey, that a “prominent player” on the Cardinals told people he did not care whether Jackie Robinson was white or black or green or yellow. On the Cardinals, there was only one prominent player – Stan Musial.

While Stan Musial might have backed Jackie Robinson, there’s another famous baseball writer, Roger Kahn, who has quoted Robinson as saying that both Musial and another Dodger player, Gil Hodges, were too passive in those crucial years. Musial, Robinson said, “was like Gil Hodges. A nice guy but when it came to what I had to do, neither one hurt me and neither one helped.”

Robinson did have players on the Dodgers, like Ralph Branca and “Pee Wee” Reese, who gave him public support.  Racism, of course, still reverberates in Australian sport. There was a story in The Australian today about a Collingwood fan, whose membership was suspended, for racially abusing Nigerian-born Joel Wilkinson, a player for the Gold Coast Suns, at the match on Sunday. Wilkinson made a stand against racism by making the story public, and he said he was bolstered by the support of the Magpies’ Dale Thomas: “I was shocked when the incident took place and it was extremely upsetting at the time, but the actions of Dale Thomas and a number of Collingwood supporters in the area certainly demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of society finds this behaviour to be unacceptable.”

It took a long time before African-American players were fully accepted into major league baseball, but now many ethnic groups are involved in the sport. But racism still exists in America, as it does in Australia.

On a positive note, I can recommend Stan Musial: An American Life to any baseball aficionado, especially those interested in the US in the middle decades of the 20th Century … and, of course, fans of Stan the Man.

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: )

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):