DATE January 24, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Barton Gellman of The Washington Post discusses
pre-September 11th efforts to find Osama bin Laden
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
After September 11th, a lot of Americans wondered why our government hadn't
done more, sooner, to prevent terrorism. My guest, Washington Post reporter
Barton Gellman, just completed a three-part series of articles examining
exactly what the Clinton administration did do, and what the Bush
administration was doing before 9/11. Gellman is special projects reporter
for the national staff of The Washington Post.
The Clinton administration heightened its focus on terrorism after the August
1998 bombing of two American embassies in Africa. Gellman says that within
days of the bombings, the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency pinned the
blame on al-Qaeda. Clinton approved two retaliatory strikes. One in
Afghanistan was timed to kill bin Laden and his associates in their beds, but
the attack missed them by a few hours. The other demolished a pharmaceutical
plant in Sudan that the CIA claimed was linked to production of chemical
weapons for bin Laden, but that claim was met with skepticism around the
world, and the strike was seen as a foreign policy disaster.
I asked Gellman how Clinton's strategy to get bin Laden changed after those
Mr. BARTON GELLMAN (The Washington Post): The strategy began as an attempt to
find bin Laden, to capture him and if necessary in the course of capturing
him, to use lethal force. That was the gist of a finding that President
Clinton made, and a finding is a term of art in the intelligence community.
It denotes the president's decision or directive that he's going to spend
covert funds for a national security purpose, and he's got to notify Congress,
in a small number of leaders on the Senate and House Select Committees on
Intelligence, that he's doing so.
Now he amended this three times over the coming year with what they call
memoranda of notification. Again, these go to Congress. The first one said,
`All right, if you can't come up with an operation that captures bin Laden,
you can come up with one whose objective is to kill him.' The second one said,
not just bin Laden, but a small number of his key lieutenants, who were named.
The third one said that `if in the course of this sort of planning, you find
the need to shoot down a civil aircraft--not one filled with commercial
passengers, but one flown in the form of a private jet--then you may do that,
too.' And this last one was seen as a significant step, because there are very
strong inhibitions globally against shooting down civilian aircraft.
GROSS: And the assumption was that this would have been a foreign civilian
Mr. GELLMAN: The assumption was that it would have been a charter aircraft
run by bin Laden for the purpose of either moving around in Afghanistan or,
more likely, for the purpose of leaving there. They worried that as pressure
grew on bin Laden and on al-Qaeda that he might decide to get a Gulfstream or
some other fast, small jet and hightail it out of there, and they did not want
to let him leave.
GROSS: And what kind of weapon deployment did President Clinton authorize?
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, when he first asked his military `How long is it going to
take you to strike bin Laden if we find him?' the answer was sort of
discouraging. It was `24 to 48 hours.' Clinton and Defense Secretary Cohen
said, `We've got to shorten that quite a bit. We need a much shorter fuse.'
And so what they decided to do at first was to deploy two Los Angles class
submarines in the closest waters, in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean,
with a six-hour alert window. And they also put, eventually, some AC-130
flying gunships in one of the nearby stands that I've agreed not to name. And
the idea was that if they got information on `Where is bin Laden? Where are a
couple of his key lieutenants?' they would be ready to hit that spot within
GROSS: Six hours is still a big window. By the time...
Mr. GELLMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...six hours has elapsed, bin Laden or the other lieutenant from
al-Qaeda could easily have moved on to someplace else.
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, this was the insuperable problem of the Clinton
administration. They only three times had information they thought was close
to good enough that they were able to pinpoint where he's going to be six
hours from now. And in each of the three cases, they began to ramp up the
strike. Clinton gave preliminary approval. They passed targeting data to
cruise missiles aboard these submarines. They spun up the engines. And in
each case before they fired, Clinton and his advisers decided to abort, and
that's because they didn't have high enough confidence they had the right
And in at least one case, it's a very good thing that they stopped. There was
this desert encampment. The CIA saw sort of an important figure in the center
of it, lots of guards, lots of weapons. And they had the idea that it might
be bin Laden. They began the process of moving toward a strike. They called
it off in the end. And sometime afterward they determined that this had been
the falconing party(ph) of a very wealthy sheik in the United Arab Emirate
visiting Afghanistan. Had they killed him, this would have been a huge
GROSS: So Clinton had authorized the execution of bin Laden and some of his
lieutenants, but he also put certain limits on the type of force that he was
willing to deploy and the amount of risk that he was willing to put American
troops in. So what are the limits that Clinton put on this?
Mr. GELLMAN: There's two big limits that defined his policy and that led to
its failure. One was that only standoff weapons would be used. That means
weapons aimed and fired from a distance. And for practical purposes, most of
the time it meant cruise missiles. The second limit was that the enemy was
defined very narrowly as bin Laden, a few of his key people and, for law
enforcement and intelligence purposes, cells of his operatives operating all
over the world.
What they did not try to do was to find a strategy for attacking the whole
network as a whole, as an organic unit. And they didn't look for a strategy
to destroy the environment in Afghanistan that allowed it to flourish. That
is to say they didn't go after the sanctuaries.
GROSS: You say that Clinton threatened the Taliban and told them that they
shouldn't, they couldn't continue to harbor al-Qaeda, but he never really took
action that followed that up. Why was he reluctant to actually take that
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, as you say, there's growth in pressure on the Taliban by
the Clinton people in the final three years. For a long time there have been
demands: `Turn over bin Laden; expel al-Qaeda.' And the Taliban deflects
those with various sort of non-starter proposals. They say sometimes they
don't know where he is. They say sometimes, `We assure you he's behaving.'
They say sometimes, `We'll be glad to keep an eye on him for you.' Eventually
they say, `Submit your complaints to us and we'll submit them to a panel of
eminent Islamic scholars and they can decide his fate.'
For a long time the Clinton people are trying to create fissures in the
Taliban, to find someone who wants to get rid of him and to induce that
someone to take power in Kabul. Eventually they decide that Taliban and
al-Qaeda are essentially one inseparable unit. So then what they do is they
issue what amounts to military threats. The most senior emissary is Tom
Pickering, who at the time is undersecretary of State. He goes to Islamabad,
he finds the Taliban representative there and he delivers this message:
`Al-Qaeda is our enemy. Al-Qaeda is killing Americans. If you are hosting
al-Qaeda, we are going to hold you equally accountable for al-Qaeda's acts.'
This is intended to be interpreted as a military threat, but the Clinton
people do not carry it out.
GROSS: And why not?
Mr. GELLMAN: They don't think the market will bear it, the domestic political
market, the diplomatic market and, in some sense, the military one. In order
to mount a significant campaign against the Taliban, you need bases in
Pakistan and you need some degree of acquiescence in the Islamic world. And
they did not believe they had any chance of either one of those. Again, the
Taliban had not killed any Americans. Al-Qaeda had killed some, but not yet
enough to create the momentum for an American reaction that September 11th
GROSS: How much of President Clinton's efforts against terrorism coincided
with the impeachment campaign against him?
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, this became a big issue. And it's very hard to figure out
cause and effect, but there's not doubt that it did coincide. The last three
years of the Clinton administration were not only the most active period of
covert effort against al-Qaeda, but they were the most active period of
political risk for Clinton. He made the decision to launch the retaliatory
strikes of August 20th, 1998. He made that decision on the same day that he
made a national address admitting that he'd lied about Monica Lewinsky on the
same week that he was going to make his first grand jury appearance. And it's
impossible to separate those two events and decide whether the one influences
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barton Gellman. He's special
projects reporter for the national staff of The Washington Post.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Barton Gellman. He's special projects reporter for the
national staff of The Washington Post. He just concluded a series on the
Clinton administration attempts to track down bin Laden and how the Bush
administration dealt with terrorism before September 11th.
Now what happened after the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000? Did that change
the Clinton approach to terrorism?
Mr. GELLMAN: It did not, and that's an interesting point. This bombing of
the Cole, which kills 17 sailors and nearly sinks one of America's Aegis
missile destroyers, comes about three weeks before the end of the presidential
campaign. Now as we've discussed, Clinton had conveyed a threat to the
Taliban. `If there's another al-Qaeda attack against Americans, we will hold
Now immediately after the bombing, the guy who is most influential in
developing Clinton's terrorism policy, whose name is Richard Clarke, on the
NSC staff, starts saying, `OK. Time to make good on this threat. Time to
start bombing the Afghan training camps, among other things.' And Clinton
doesn't do this for what amounts to two reasons. One is there's about to be a
change of government. To launch a new military campaign against al-Qaeda is
something that he and his advisers finally decide ought to be deferred to the
next president. And I think, equally, if not more important, Clinton is
devoting nearly all his foreign policy energy and the larger part of all his
energy in the last months of his presidency to trying to achieve a
comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace and, in particular an Israeli-Palestinian
peace. He thinks he's very close on this. It's the legacy he's most
interested in leaving. And it's very clear to him that beginning a military
campaign against an Islamic state is going to blow up the efforts to forge the
GROSS: The embassy bombings took place under Clinton's watch. Was terrorism
as important an issue to the Bush administration early on as it was to the
Mr. GELLMAN: In terms of time and effort and public presidential attention,
the answer is clearly no. By the last few years of the Clinton presidency,
Clinton's Cabinet-level national security advisers were meeting every two to
three weeks to talk about the threat of al-Qaeda. I mean by that the
secretary of State, the secretary of Defense, the head of the CIA, the
national security adviser.
Under Bush there was no such meeting until exactly a week before September
11th. What there was was a fairly broad-ranging review of, `What should our
policy be toward al-Qaeda?' And in the course of that review, which takes
place two or three levels below the president, there is this growing ambition
to have a much broader and deeper campaign against al-Qaeda. What you don't
know, and what we can't ever know, is how much of that would have been carried
out after the events of September 11th.
They have this series of drafts. `What's our objective going to be against
al-Qaeda?' And it starts with rolling it back, and it moves on through
undermining it and finally to eliminating al-Qaeda as a threat to the United
States and friendly foreign powers. But never before September 11th does the
Bush administration commit itself to the covert and overt military instrument
that would be necessary to carry that out.
GROSS: Now one of the things that was done under the Bush administration
before September 11th was a replica of bin Laden's house in Kandahar was build
in Nevada. You report about this in your series. What was the point of this
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, this is a fascinating moment in the history of the fight
against al-Qaeda. In the first week of June, the CIA and the Air Force go to
this closed-off patch of Nevada desert, and they build, stone for stone, bin
Laden's house in a--actually it's an Afghan training camp, an al-Qaeda
training camp, called Tornot Kila(ph). And it's outside Kandahar. This is
the same place where they had got good pictures of bin Laden. It's a
four-room villa. They've got good pictures of him walking out of it the
previous October. And they decided this is where he lives when he goes to
visit his recruits in Tornot Kila.
So they built his house and they tested a new and then-quite-secret weapon
against the house. This is an unmanned drone called the Predator, which
previously had been known as a reconnaissance drone. It take pictures and it
takes video. But they had put a missile on the thing for the first time, and
they developed a secret warhead for it, which is designed to go through
building walls and kill people inside the building. They fired this thing at
the replica house. They decided it would have killed everyone in the room
that it struck. And now--this is a very important moment--for the first time
after a three-year quest, the US government has a way of finding bin Laden and
killing him within minutes, not within hours. And between that first week of
June and the second week of September, the Bush administration chose not to
deploy that in Afghanistan.
GROSS: Were there opportunities to deploy it? Did they ever know for sure if
bin Laden was at home?
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, the idea of The Predator is to find him and shoot him at
the same time.
Mr. GELLMAN: This is a drone that loiters for many hours over an area and
looks for something. In this case, it would have looked for bin Laden. Had
it found him, there would have been an opportunity to shoot. But there is, in
this period, an ongoing dispute between the Air Force and the CIA about who
runs this thing, who pays for it, under what circumstance do you use it. It
was still, formally speaking, in the engineering and development stage. And
so one could argue that it needed more time.
But most of all, the Bush people were not giving priority attention to this
question. They knew that there's an ongoing policy review and they're saying
to themselves, `Let's not rush this thing. We're trying to figure out what
our broad policy toward al-Qaeda is going to be and it'll still be here three
or six or nine months from now.'
GROSS: Well, something else you report about the Bush administration's
anti-terrorism efforts before September 11th--this has to do with the Treasury
Department. You say there was a new deputy assistant secretary to the
Treasury that was appointed before the 11th to coordinate anti-terrorist
efforts. But at the same time, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill suspended US
participation in efforts to penetrate offshore banking havens. And these are
havens that protect terrorists, as well as protecting corporations like Enron.
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, look. One important aspect of the war against al-Qaeda,
then and now, is tracking its finances and cutting off its sources of funds.
What happened under Treasury in the first nine months, the first eight months
of the Bush administration, is that you had a new secretary, Paul O'Neill, who
was skeptical of regulation and skeptical of intrusive government
investigative activity. And he did two things. He, first of all, cut off
support for legislation in Congress that would have expanded the powers of
investigators. And second of all, he suspended cooperation with two
international efforts to go after the money launderers. One is at the
so-called group of seven key industrial powers, and the other is at the
Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, a rather larger club of
rich countries. Both had task forces intended to identify and put great
pressure on the so-called scofflaw banks, the rogue banks, the banking havens
you had in the Cayman Islands, which have, I think, 35,000 inhabitants, bank
deposits equivalent to about one-sixth of those in the United States. You
have huge, huge financial flows through places whose only reason for existence
was hiding the identities of the account holders. And these were used
preeminently by drug traffickers and by tax evaders. But it was already known
by investigators that exactly the same mechanisms were being used for, and
essential to the activities of, the terrorists.
GROSS: What surprised you most in researching this series?
Mr. GELLMAN: I suppose I was surprised, on the one hand, by how much the US
government knew about al-Qaeda in the final years before September 11th and by
the inhibitions against striking back. It may be unfair for me to say that
I'm surprised by the latter. You know, there's so many priorities available
for any government. There's so many threats. In the Clinton administration
you had Iraq, you had the Balkans, you had the proliferation of weapons of
mass destruction, you had the possibility of war between India and Pakistan,
who are nuclear states. There are crises all the time facing these guys, and
the same is true for Bush.
And Mike Sheehan, who is a former coordinator for counterterrorism, told me
that in any government at any given time you can get the attention of the top
people to maybe two, maybe three subjects. And terrorism did not make that
cut for Bush, and it did not override the other ones for Clinton.
GROSS: Well, Barton Gellman, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. GELLMAN: Thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Barton Gellman is special projects reporter for the national staff of
The Washington Post.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Sylvia Nasar discusses her book about the life of
mathematical genius John Nash, "A Beautiful Mind"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The movie "A Beautiful Mind" won four Golden Globes this week, including best
dramatic picture. Russell Crowe won best actor in a drama for his portrayal
of John Nash, the mathematical genius and Nobel laureate whose life was thrown
into mayhem by schizophrenia. The movie is based on the book "A Beautiful
Mind," a biography of Nash, written by my guest, Sylvia Nasar. It won a
National Book Critics Circle Award. Nasar is a former economics correspondent
for The New York Times and is currently a professor of journalism at Columbia
Nash won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1994 for work on game theory that he
did early in his career. From 1959 until his remission about three decades
later, he suffered from schizophrenia, which left him paranoid and delusional.
I asked Sylvia Nasar about the great paradox of Nash's life. He lived in a
world of numbers and had deep faith in rationality, yet his illness made his
Professor SYLVIA NASAR (Author, "A Beautiful Mind"): It's almost as if he
took rationality to a crazy and absurd extreme. When he stopped doing
mathematics and he became a numerologist--this is, of course, in the grips of
acute paranoid schizophrenia--and it was as if he no longer believed in
coincidence, randomness. Everything had significance, and he was so aware of
everything, so that a man in a red tie or Pope John on the cover of Life--it
all spoke to him of great important meaning. And that was the very opposite
GROSS: What did he did when he was into numerology?
Prof. NASAR: Well, he spent all day, every day making long calculations,
trying to discern the hidden meanings, the hidden patterns, often with this
overtone of ominousness or revelation. For example, this was even in the
mid-'80s when he had been ill already for 25 years, he had a young economist
at Princeton help him write a computer program to transform Rockefeller's
name, to which he attached great significance, into base 26, and then to
factor this very large number. So he was looking for connections between
things like the telephone number in the Senate cloak room and the Social
Security number of a mathematician he knew and the birth date of Brezhnev.
Prof. NASAR: He wrote every day for years. Students of physics and
mathematics would come to their morning classes, and on the blackboards of the
hallways of the mathematics building were messages written by the phantom of
Fine Hall, aka John Nash. And they were these witty, very erudite, but
entirely bizarre messages.
GROSS: This is when he was no longer teaching math.
Prof. NASAR: That's right. Just to back up a bit, Nash got his PhD at
Princeton. He stayed on for one year as a post-doc and taught one year. But
most of his academic career took place at MIT before he got sick in 1959 and
GROSS: What did Nash win the Nobel for in 1994?
Prof. NASAR: His first and earliest achievement, embodied in his
dissertation that he wrote at age 21 at Princeton, was in game theory. And
that's actually what he won the Nobel Prize for. Now game theory was
invented, so to speak, by John von Neumann, the Hungarian mathematician who
was in Princeton when Nash was there, who wrote a paper in 1927 suggesting
that parlor games could be usefully used as models for rational
decision-making. But what Nash did was to take that general thought and come
up with a very specific model that actually made game theory useful for
studying economic transactions. Now it happens to be the case that most
economic transactions don't take place in the marketplace. And over 90
percent of the money that corporations raise is raised from other
corporations, from institutions like banks and investment banks, and from
Those kinds of interactions are not at all anonymous, and in these sort of
more interactive economic relationships, there is room for strategic behavior
on the part of the parties to that transaction. What Nash did, what game
theory does, is to give you a model for studying those transactions just as
Adam Smith gave us a model for studying the interactions in the marketplace:
analyzing and also predicting.
GROSS: John Nash worked with the Rand Corporation from 1950 to '54. This was
one of the early think tanks. It was a think tank that worked on military
issues, but it was made up of civilians. What kind of work did he do with
Prof. NASAR: He worked on game theory and applications of his Nash
equilibrium to various military problems. At that time, this was the
beginning of the Cold War. The government had employed mathematicians very
profitably during the war to help win World War II. The government was
anxious to continue to be able to tap the latest scientific and mathematical
thinking for the Cold War. And that's what Nash and--just about everyone who
was anyone in economics and mathematics at that time was a Rand consultant.
GROSS: So Nash was working at Rand during the Cold War era, working on
military issues. And this is an era of great paranoia about the Communists,
the Russians, nuclear war. Do you think that that paranoia fed into the
paranoia that he later developed when his schizophrenic symptoms manifested?
Prof. NASAR: Well, they created the content of his delusions in part, but
they didn't cause his paranoia, if you see the distinction. And I think
that's very typical. When, you know, America was much more religious, then
people who developed paranoid schizophrenia had predominantly religious
delusions. Nash's delusions were partly religious. He thought he was a
religious prophet of great but secret importance. But they were also very
political. He thought he was the prince of peace. He thought he was going to
organize a world government. He saw a crypto-Communist conspiracy. In other
words, one's private fears and conflicts become clothed with the features of
our everyday lives and thoughts. So his mathematics became numerology. But
it's not the case that working at Rand helped trigger his descent into
GROSS: My guest is Sylvia Nasar, author of "A Beautiful Mind: The Biography
of John Nash," which is the basis of the new film about him. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Sylvia Nasar is my guest. She's the author of the book "A Beautiful
Mind," the life of mathematical genius and Nobel laureate John Nash, who
suffered with schizophrenia for about three decades. This book is the basis
of the new movie, "A Beautiful Mind," which stars Russell Crowe as John Nash.
One of the things that's left out of the movie "A Beautiful Mind" is that Nash
lost his security clearance and his position at Rand after he was arrested
for soliciting sex in a men's room. And you write that he had a history of
relationships with men. Apparently, you're not completely sure what those
relationships entailed, but there's been a lot of controversy about this,
whether the movie intentionally skirted around the fact that he was likely
bisexual, at least during part of his life.
Prof. NASAR: Look, I think that, you know, whether he was or he wasn't, it
doesn't loom too large in the life and it doesn't loom too large in the book.
And I think it would have been really weird if the movie had focused on it
because here is a movie that is about the most compelling aspects of Nash's
life, which I would think most people who read the book would agree is his
genius, his madness, his recovery, the belated recognition and, most
particularly, those relationships that made the difference between survival and
non-survival, and those relationships include the Princeton community that
protected him, but first and foremost, his relationship with Alicia--clearly
the most important relationship in his life, because without her, he wouldn't
just have would up homeless, he would have perished.
GROSS: Alicia is his wife. But something else that the movie leaves out is
that they were divorced for several years, and they remarried I think last
Prof. NASAR: That's right, which makes her devotion to him, because after
all, he had paranoid schizophrenia, he blamed her for hospitalizing him.
After they were divorced, she sheltered him for 25 years in poverty, in
tremendous ill health and in isolation, as she struggled to support him and
their son, who also tragically developed schizophrenia. He was her
ex-husband. I'm sure she was young and beautiful. She had lots of problems
of her own. And I think that if she's not a wife, I don't know who of us is.
GROSS: Were you at their second wedding in the summer?
Prof. NASAR: I was. I was.
GROSS: Anything you could tell us about that or about why they decided to
formalize the relationship again?
Prof. NASAR: Yes. Of course, I asked John and Alicia why they had
decided to get remarried. I mean, after all, he's 73 and she's in her late
60s, and nobody is too scandalized that they are, you know, living together.
And Alicia said, `Well, we've lived together most of our lives,' and John
said, `The divorce never should have happened. We consider this a kind of
retraction,' which, I might add, is a kind of mathematician's way of putting
it. Their son is a major concern and providing for him is a major concern,
and that, I think, also played in the decision to formalize the relationship
GROSS: What are the some of the problems Nash's son is having?
Prof. NASAR: Well, this is, of course, the doubling of the tragedy. He is
now in his 40s. He is mathematically gifted; in fact, so gifted that even
after the onset of his illness, which started in much earlier than his
father's at around age 15, he was able to--even though he didn't finish high
school and he didn't finish college, he was such a brilliant student that he
was able to complete a PhD in mathematics at Rutgers, and he worked on some
very original difficult problems. He taught for one year, and he's never been
able to work since. He was a chess master.
For me, thinking about--over the two and a half years that I was working on my
book, thinking about Nash's illness and the fact that it stretched on for
three decades, never was quite as sad to me as when I met Johnny, 'cause,
after all, Nash had recovered and was becoming better every day and every
month. But when I met Johnny, who's closer to my age, and realized that, you
know, he doesn't have the concentration, say, to read a book anymore, and he
lives with his parents, and he's incredibly lonely, that's when the full
import of Nash's experience really came home to me.
GROSS: What is Nash's recovery from schizophrenia attributed to?
Prof. NASAR: Well, he attributes it to a couple of things. One is that he
feels that he, quotes, "aged out of it," unquote, and that actually is borne
out by the literature. In other words, of people who suffer from chronic,
acute schizophrenia for three decades, a small minority, something like 8
to 20 percent, experience a dramatic improvement that can range from anything,
to just being able to function significantly better, to the kind of dramatic
recovery, though gradually recovery, that Nash has had.
He also believes that his own motivation, volition has played a key role, and
I think that's absolutely right. Because even though his recovery is
dramatic, there is a residual and he sometimes has paranoid thoughts, he
sometimes has delusional thoughts, he sometimes even hears his old voices.
Now what he can do is recognize that these are unreal and put them aside. He
calls it a `diet of the mind.' But I think all of us who have lived long
enough to know our own quirks and irrationalities and neuroses know that what
you do is you don't eliminate them entirely, but you learn to manage them.
GROSS: John Nash got the Nobel in economics in 1994 for work that he had done
decades earlier. Why did he get it in '94 when the work was so far behind
Prof. NASAR: Well, there are really two answers. One is that game theory,
including Nash's contribution, did not become widely applied in economics
until the 1980s--late '70s, early '80s. That's when economists figured out
what a powerful tool this was and applied it to everything from trade theory
to antitrust; that's one answer. The second answer, however, is that even
though the Nobel Prize committee was considering a prize in game theory
starting in the mid-'80s, it wasn't awarded for nearly a decade because of
concerns about Nash's illness.
GROSS: And he was recovered by '94.
Prof. NASAR: That's right. There were people on the committee who worried
that Nash's getting the prize would tarnish the prize. They argued that this
is not the same mind that had these wonderful ideas. And very specifically
they were worried about what he might do during the wonderful Nobel ceremony.
GROSS: What did he do doing the ceremony?
Prof. NASAR: He was wonderful. You see him on tape. He looked beautiful in
his coat and tails, he executed his bow perfectly, and it was actually one of
the people who shared the prize with him, a very lovely gentleman from
Berkeley, who is the one who fell asleep on stage during the ceremony.
GROSS: How did the Nobel change John Nash's life?
Prof. NASAR: Well, this, to me, is almost the most amazing part of the
story because when I first met him, which was six months after the prize, he
was still isolated, he couldn't look you in the face, his front teeth were
rotted down to the gums. You could pick him out in a crowd as someone who
probably had suffered from mental illness. And the effect of this acceptance
and recognition and appreciation has dramatically altered him as a person. He
has friends. He goes out to dinner in Manhattan. He has a research grant
from the National Science Foundation. He's giving talks. He's gotten a life
back. And just getting to sort of see this, see his re-emergence that is
continuing--it's just an incredible experience.
GROSS: Well, Sylvia Nasar, thank you very much for talking with us.
Prof. NASAR: Hey, thank you.
GROSS: Sylvia Nasar is the author of "A Beautiful Mind: A Biography of John
Nash." It's the basis of the new movie "A Beautiful Mind."
Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg on one more way which new technology is
changing our language. This is FRESH AIR.
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Commentary: How new technology changes language
TERRY GROSS, host:
Analogue watch, natural turf, acoustic guitar--they're called retronyms and
they remind us how things have changed. Linguist Geoff Nunberg says you can
tell a lot about the pace of change by studying the retronyms we use.
GEOFF NUNBERG: This was one of those upstairs-downstairs exchanges we have in
our house when my 12-year-old daughter, Sophie, is getting breakfast. `Dad,
where's the maple syrup?' `I put it in the icebox,' I say. A pause, then
Sophie yells back, `Dad, it's not there.' And I answer, `Yes, it is, on the
top shelf next to the milk.' `Oh,' she says, `you mean down there. I thought
you said it was in the icebox on the top.' I apologized to her. It wasn't
Sophie's fault that her dad is behind the curve in the nomenclature of
Actually, what's curious is that I or anybody is still using the word
`icebox.' That fixture started to disappear from American kitchens in the
1920s, when electric and gas-powered refrigerators first became available for
home use. The new machines went by names like Coolerator, Fridgerator, Cold
Vac(ph) and most famously Frigidaire. But at the time, most people just
referred to them as gas or electric iceboxes. There was a joke in Life
magazine in 1925 poking fun at the vogue for newfangled household appliances.
A bride at a telephone says, `Oh, John, do come home. I've mixed the plugs
someway. The radio's all covered with frost and the electric icebox is
singing "Way Out West In Kansas."' And iceboxes persisted for another 75
years, long after the last iceman hung up his tongs.
That's usually the way things work when a new technology or new way of doing
things appears. We tend to keep calling it by the name of what it replaces,
even long after it's appropriate. We still refer to the luggage compartments
at the back of our cars as trunks. Not even Sophie objects to that one. And
we're still talking about dialing telephones, even though the old sort of dial
has become such a rarity that we've had to invent a new description for it,
the rotary dial. Rotary dial is what some people call a retronym, a term that
expresses a distinction that didn't used to be necessary.
You can get a good sense of the pace of change over the past century just by
looking at the retronyms we've accumulated. New technologies have forced us
to come up with terms like steam locomotive, silent movie, manual
transmission, AM radio, day baseball, conventional oven and acoustic guitar.
Cultural changes have led to retronyms like physical therapy, heterosexual
marriage and men's wrestling. And now we've had to introduce another set of
terms to distinguish things in the material world from their virtual
counterparts: surface mail, face-to-face conference, brick-and-mortar
retailer and, God save us all, paper book.
You could think of this torrent of retronyms as a reflection of the pliable
metaphysics of modern life. Nowadays, everything can be estranged from its
essence. We can make watches without hands, beer without alcohol, grapes
without seeds, ovens without heat and babies without sex. But the phenomenon
also has a lot to do with simple linguistic laziness. We start by calling a
microwave an oven, because it's too much trouble to come up with a new name;
then later we have to go back and find a new description for the old sort of
ovens. And yet sometimes we're curiously reluctant to let the old word do new
tricks. We may talk about electronic mail, for example, but we don't describe
the online messages we receive as electronic letters, maybe out of nostalgia
for the smell of ink and paper. We didn't stretch broadcast to cover the
cable transmission of television programs. And while we allow that photos can
be digital, we still reserve the phrase home movies for images recorded on
film; otherwise they're videos.
Why do we refuse to extend some names to new categories while readily
extending others? Is it out of a sense that the new thing is essentially
different from the old one? Is it nostalgia, marketing or just linguistic
inconsistency? Those sound like the kinds of questions my friends and I used
to idle our evenings away with back when we were in graduate school. But
sometimes a lot hangs in the balance. Take the word `copy.' When we say that
a computer makes a copy of a file to your hard disk, are we talking about the
same thing as the copy that we make when we take a book to the Xerox machine?
If they're the same, then the major publishers have a lot more power in the
digital age than they had in the age of print. Time Warner or Bertelsmann
can't stop you from lending a hard copy of a magazine article to a friend, but
they can stop you from sending it around as an e-mail attachment, since you
can't do that without making an electronic copy of the document. But some
legal scholars argue that a digital copy isn't at all the same kind of thing
as a physical copy, no more than my new Amana is the same kind of thing as the
wooden box that sat in my grandmother's kitchen, dripping ice water into a
pan. I may use the same name for both of them, but Sophie isn't fooled for an
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a consulting linguist at Stanford and the author of
the new book "The Way We Talk Now."
(Soundbite of music; credits)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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