DATE November 9, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Novelist S.V. Date discusses the vote recount going
on in Florida that will decide the presidential race and his new
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neal Conan, in for Terry Gross.
The political picture couldn't be any stranger. Two days after the
we still don't know the winner of the presidential race. Stranger still is
that the decisive tally will come from Florida, where the chief executive is
the brother of one of the candidates. Former secretaries of state lead the
legions of lawyers both camps have dispatched to Tallahassee, and at this
point, it's unclear exactly how and when this is all going to be resolved.
S.V. Date is in perfect position to observe this drama. He's the
bureau chief of The Palm Beach Post and a novelist. His latest book is
"Smokeout," a comedic thriller about Florida politics and the tobacco lobby,
story that, until Tuesday night, seemed hard to top. Earlier today, I asked
him to tell us more about the area at the heart of the recount controversy.
Mr. S.V. DATE (The Palm Beach Post): Palm Beach County is--it's diverse. I
mean, we're a large county, one of the largest, certainly in south Florida,
either the biggest one. But in terms of our main population centers, the
southern part of our county is very much like Broward County: a lot of
elderly people, a lot of elderly Jewish people who live in these
And they have their polling places right there, and it's a Democratic
stronghold. When Governor Lawton Chiles ran in 1994, it was south Florida,
was Palm Beach, Dade and Broward counties that pulled him through. I mean,
were it not for those counties, he would have lost with several hundred
Same thing again the other night. Perhaps people from the other parts of
country were looking in and saying, you know, `Well, Gore's down a hundred
fifty thousand votes with 80 percent counted, 85 percent counted. There's
way he's going to pull it out.' Well, yeah, he is. He's--you have to count
Broward and Dade and Palm Beach, and those are going to be going for Gore
70, 75 percent. And sure enough, that's what happened.
Now what's interesting is, Broward County voted for Buchanan at a rate of
percent. Statewide, Buchanan got .29 percent of the vote. In Palm Beach
County, Buchanan got .79 percent of the vote, and there's just absolutely no
explaining that whatsoever. You're not going to find a lot of support for
Buchanan and his ideas in an elderly retirement community made up of
Jewish people. It's not going to happen. And yet, they were his strongest
support. Clearly, this was a mistake. This is not what they wanted to do
when they went into that ballot booth.
CONAN: There's still a question whether, `Oops, I did it wrong,' is grounds
for reversing an election, though.
Mr. DATE: That's certainly true. You know, the instructions were there.
you read them carefully, you would see that you would have to follow the
from the name to the hole and you press the hole. Now in elections past, we
didn't face this issue because you never had 10 parties or 10 tickets
for president in Florida. We recently--in 1998, we had a constitutional
amendment that was approved by the voters, which changed the ballot access
laws. It became much easier for a minor party to get on the ballot. So
year, for the first time, we had 10 tickets, and because of that, the
supervisors around the state were faced with the dilemma of, `OK, how do we
this? We can keep it clean and simple by listing all 10 names in a row, or
can try to make it large type, user-friendly and spread them over two
Palm Beach County was the only county, as far as I know, that did the
We used larger print, but then we had a confusing system where you really
to follow the arrow from the name to the proper hole. Now I can understand
the rationale of somebody thinking, `Well, I don't know if I've got the card
in here properly. Perhaps I should count holes to make sure.' And when you
count holes, you get it wrong, and that seems to--I mean, it's just not my
theorizing. This is what people who've called in by now by the hundreds
said they did.
CONAN: Those people who were involved in the situation where they think
may have voted incorrectly for Pat Buchanan instead of the candidate they
wanted to vote for, there are apparently some of them who say that they
to change their ballot while they were in the polling place, but were not
permitted to do so.
Mr. DATE: Well, my understanding it is that they should have been allowed
do so. I believe that in these situations where you have a immutable
in the sense that once you mark it or once you poke a hole in it, it forever
alters that piece of paper. My understanding is that you should be given an
opportunity to start afresh. At the least, twice; I believe it's three
but at least twice after your first try. You know, we were getting dozens
these phone calls the very afternoon that it was happening in real time. So
this is--I mean, what I hope to give the impression here is that we had an
indication that there were serious problems the day that it was going on,
we didn't know--when we had no idea what the result was going to be and
that it was going to hinge entirely upon those votes. In fact, the reason
that it became such a huge story for us, some of our editors made these
mistakes, and realized that if they were doing it, probably others were.
we wrote that story that very day, that there were some serious issues with
the balloting in Palm Beach County.
CONAN: We are familiar with stories, going back certainly to the 1960
election, of irregularities in places like Illinois and Chicago and Cook
County. Is there a history of voter--well--shenanigans in the state of
Mr. DATE: Well, let's put it this way, as late as 1997, we had to throw out
an entire mayoral race in the city of Miami, because invented people, dead
people, people who have lived nowhere near Miami, somehow were voting in
election, and it was not a one or two or three thing. That led to some
changes in the absentee ballot rules and so forth in the next legislative
session. But, you know, the funny thing is usually, the types of
irregularities, apart from the Palm Beach issue, that's--those are large
numbers there. But typically when people complain about, 'oh I was
intimidated from going to the polls' or `They didn't let me vote, even
I was registered,' we're talking an extremely small number of people spread
over an entire state. And usually, the final tally is so conclusive in its
result, the numbers are so far apart between candidates that even if every
of those people who were complaining about something were correct, it
make a difference. Here, literally, every vote is making a difference.
That's the difference.
CONAN: The governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, was--a lot of people think and
you've certainly written--was originally the son of the Bush family who was
expected to run for president. How did it work out that we got George W.?
Mr. DATE: I think a lot of people are wondering that. I think if it
that Gore ends up winning this, many more people are going to be wondering
that. I mean, look at their histories. Jeb Bush whizzed through college in
two and a half years. He then went and became a banker in Venezuela who
overseas for a time, came back to work on his dad's campaign. He's been
working hard all his life. He brings these habits with him to Tallahassee.
He's a workaholic. Now you know, like his policies, dislike his policies,
whatever, you cannot say that he's not an articulate, smart, extremely
Now we in Florida don't know George W. Bush terribly well. We've seen him
the last few months, and frankly, when the two are on stage together at the
same time, the comparison is very obvious, and the distinction is very
And so we have a situation where we have Jeb Bush, who we did elect to
governor. Now keep in mind, Florida, we have a relatively weak governor,
we were still a little bit--ah, not nervous, but maybe had some potential
misgivings about electing Jeb, who had never had elected office before, to
highest office in the state. Now here he is, a guy who's obviously more
capable than his brother, and he's asking us to make his brother the leader
the free world? That's something--that's a bit much to ask, and obviously,
some people said `No,' which is why the election is as close as it is.
Everyone expected in the Republican Party that Jeb would solidly lock down
Florida and deliver it without much of a fight at all. You know, the fact
that we're counting votes two days after the election, you know, that didn't
CONAN: Is Jeb Bush a successful governor of Florida? I mean, you would
that if he was doing well and popular there--obviously popular enough to get
elected--that it would be a cakewalk for him to shepherd his brother through
to a presidential victory.
Mr. DATE: That was the theory. Jeb Bush's approval ratings were extremely
high. He--again, people even--most people who disagree with his policies
still find him agreeable. At times, he can be a bit imperious, I guess.
rubbed the Legislature the wrong way many a time. But it didn't happen that
his popularity rubbed off on his brother, and I think that goes back to the
comparisons that are made. Jeb Bush will work until the late night hours
understanding a problem. I've sent e-mails to him regarding stories I'm
writing, and he sometimes answers back at 10 or 10:30 at night or as early
6:30 in the morning. George Bush, by all accounts, doesn't like to keep
kind of work schedules, and, hey, you know, you can love your brother and
can do all you can for him, but at the end of the day, your brother's got to
do stuff for himself. And I think that's what's happened in Florida.
CONAN: Is there a sibling rivalry?
Mr. DATE: Oh, there must be. Jeb Bush is extremely competitive. He's
to play golf on Sunday afternoons, and he means to win, regardless of who
playing with, and it's kind of a power golf, where he briskly walks around
course and it doesn't take him too terribly long. And he wants to play well
and he wants to beat whoever he's playing with. I can't imagine that that
kind of competitiveness was not there between the brothers. Obviously, you
know, we weren't there when they were growing up. But, you know, I think of
the day when George W. must have announced to his brother that he was going
run for president and what Jeb's reaction must have been; how he must have
kind of suck it all up and put out his hand and give him a hug and say, `You
know, I'm going to make it happen for you and I'm going to deliver Florida,'
and so forth. And you've got to wonder, in the deepest recesses of his
he must know that if his brother runs for president, he probably will--may
never get the opportunity to do so at that point. And yet, what do you say
when your brother wants to do something that's ambitious and a dream of many
people? You obviously have to support him. I mean, Jeb Bush is in a very
tough position here, personally and professionally.
CONAN: My guest is reporter and novelist S.V. Shirish Date. He's the
Tallahassee bureau chief of The Palm Beach Post and his latest novel is
"Smokeout." We'll be back in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: I'm talking with Shirish Date of The Palm Beach Post. His latest
novel is "Smokeout."
This book is, as they say, loosely based on a real incident, a real story in
the state of Florida, when Lawton Chiles got a bill through the state
Legislature that made it easier to sue tobacco companies.
Mr. DATE: Right. What happened was in 1994, Governor Chiles succeeded in
sneaking through--and that's how the Florida Legislature works, by the way,
for those who are unfamiliar with it. Most of the things that we come to
about as being very bad laws or very dramatic laws are snuck through.
don't talk about them in the open. They're usually little amendments,
changes to existing laws that have dramatic diff--results. What happened in
'94 was, Chiles was able to sneak through, in the closing hours of the
legislative session, a bill that basically made it very, very easy for him
sue Big Tobacco. Now when tobacco figured this out, within days, they got
extremely upset. In 1995, the Legislature, of course, repealed that law.
Governor Chiles vetoed that repeal, so back--it came back in 1996 with the
Legislature about to override Governor Chiles' veto, if you follow that.
So at that point, now the Legislature needs two-thirds vote in each chamber
order to do what tobacco wanted. They had the votes in the House, no
The Senate was going to be close. Everybody knew it. It was going to be 27
votes. One of those votes was a woman named Jenny Brown-Waite(ph). She's a
state senator from the western part of Florida, Crystal River. And she'd
always voted with tobacco on the base--on the argument that, you know, no
makes you smoke. If you want to quit, you can quit, and it's an individual
decision. Tobacco ought not be held accountable for your own flaws. Chiles
did an interesting thing. He was able to provide her with some documents,
with some material that his trial team, by this point, had already found,
regarding tobacco and what they've done over the years and the tactics
used and so forth, and he knew that Senator Brown-Waite was a very likely--a
very receptive person to get this material: her father, her mother and her
younger sister had passed away from smoking-related diseases. She says
now she stayed up all night. She couldn't sleep that night, reading the
and trying to decide what to do, and she gave a dramatic, emotional speech
a silent Senate chamber the next day and said, `You know, I can't play the
tobacco game any longer. And this has gone on too long, and I'm going to
to sustain the veto.' So it was that they lost by one vote.
Now rarely in real life does an entire issue--that is, a whole giant story
like that--boil down and crystallize itself in a single moment. And it did
Florida on the Senate floor in March of 1996. And at that time, I thought,
`Whoa, this is huge. If this stands, this will be enormous in years to
And sure enough, it has. We had a settlement in Florida, 13 billion in a
and a half. And then just recently, we had a verdict in Miami, which is not
structured settlement--we had jurors who got so tired of tobacco and what
had been doing over the years, that said, you know, 'Pay up, a hundred and
forty-five billion. We want it now, we want to see it.' So I think it's
very plausible that none of this happens--none of it--had it not been for
one vote in Florida. That's just, to me, just amazing. I mean, in years to
come, people who write history and look at that, I didn't want to write
history. I wanted to take that moment and kind of play with it and use it
get into how Tallahassee works.
CONAN: Describing how Tallahassee works and the interaction between
senators--state senators and lobbyists, state senators in Florida in your
novel--and I assume this is correct--you say they make $25,000 a year?
Mr. DATE: That's right. We have what we like to call a citizen Legislature
in which folks are expected to have regular, average jobs--or not average,
the case may be--and then come up to Tallahassee for two months and discuss
the issues of the day and then go home and resume their everyday lives. Now
way too often, this does not happen. They become, essentially, professional
politicians. They spend the better part of their day--and this is not
necessarily a bad thing, I mean, to deal with constituents and so forth, but
because there are institutional reasons--well, they don't want to give
themselves a pay raise, certainly, and they really don't want to make
themselves a professional Legislature either. What ends up happening is for
far too many, they rely almost exclusively on the lobbyists and the staff
most of their decision-making, for most of their knowledge about issues.
Now another part of this is some people, after they get elected to the
Legislature, figure out a way to make themselves rich merely by being in the
Legislature, and I can't tell you how many legislators have consultancy
And what they do is they consult with local governments, presumably about
their expertise in governmental affairs. Well, in some cases, we have
of appropriations committees, and they're going around and talking to local
governments and planning boards and whatnot and offering their expertise,
everyone knows darn well that the expertise they're offering is that, `Hey,
I'm chair of the committee that handles $45 billion a year, and if you want
something for your little hometown, then you ought to do what my client
here at the local level.' You know, that's absurd. That is absurd that
basically selling access to these people for no other reason that they're in
the state Legislature.
CONAN: And these decisive bills often come down to just a word or two in a
rider, an amendment.
Mr. DATE: Absolutely. And, again, the amendments are written by the
lobbyists. It's stunning. I mean, if people saw how things work up here,
they would be appalled. Now--Who is it?--Kaiser Wilhelm, I guess, said,
`You don't want to--there are two things in life you don't want to see being
made, is sausage and legislation.' Well, the legislation might even be worse
here in Tallahassee, especially toward the end of the session when things
frenzied. We have this large open area between the two legislative
It's called the rotunda. It is packed with lobbyists. And what they do is,
they send in notes to the legislators, asking them to come out for a moment.
The legislator comes out. The lobbyist hands him an amendment, and the
legislator goes back in and introduces it. And that's how it works. And
can have major, dramatic changes to bills from these handwritten notes that
are given to the lawmakers by people who are paid by interest groups to do
We have a bill that was supposed to honor a Florida state trooper who was
killed in the line of duty, and it made some changes to the drunk driving
to make it more difficult for people to get away with vehicular
something to that effect, and the bail bondsman lobby was able to change it
basically to enrich themselves, to add a word here and a word there.
Bush ended up vetoing it because it was so outrageous. Now these are the
of things that happen. And unfortunately, the one, though, that I just
described, that's just one of the few that we actually find out about.
CONAN: You've set--one of your books was a murder mystery, a thriller--at
NASA, and that was called "Final Orbit," and "Speed Week" was about Daytona;
again, a murder played a prominent role in that. And the threat of death
certainly lingers around your most recent book, "Smokeout." After NASA,
Daytona and now Tallahassee, what's next?
Mr. DATE: Yeah. I guess I've got to keep moving on to new beats to find
things to write about in my fiction. What's next is central Florida. I
to work for The Orlando Sentinel in Orlando. And it's amazing how much
influence the theme park industries down there have over not just central
Florida but all of Florida. I mean, Walt Disney World, for an example, has
its own special law in Florida. It's essentially allowed to govern itself
its land. It was given this right in the mid-'60s by the Florida
If they wanted, they could build their own nuclear power plant or airport on
Disney property, you know, without anyone's having to question them about
You know, it's--it's--obviously, a situation like that offers a little bit
opportunity to have fun with it, especially if things start going awry on a
fictional central Florida theme park's property, and they are in charge of
investigating and regulating it.
CONAN: Thanks very much.
Mr. DATE: Thank you very much for having me.
CONAN: S.V. Date is Tallahassee bureau chief of The Palm Beach Post. His
latest novel is "Smokeout." I'm Neal Conan, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: Coming up, unmasking Joe Klein. The literary forensic expert Don
Foster tells us how he discovered the identity of the once anonymous author
"Primary Colors." And David Bianculli reviews the election night TV
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Professor Don Foster talks about his investigative work
into discovering authorship of works attributed to Shakespeare,
Joe Klein and Clement Moore
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neal Conan, in for Terry Gross.
Science is unraveling the cloak of anonymity. We now know that each of us
leaves an indelible trail of evidence that leads unerringly to ourselves.
Unique markers include fingerprints, DNA, retinal patterns and, if you
Don Foster, our words. Don Foster is a professor of English literature at
Vassar College. A technique he developed identified William Shakespeare as
the author of a previously unidentified poem that brought him controversy
celebrity and they, in turn, brought him a series of more modern literary
mysteries from the Unabomber to "The Night Before Christmas." Don Foster
we are what we read. Give anonymous offenders enough verbal rope and column
inches and they will hang themselves for you every time. Professor Foster
assembled a case book titled "Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous."
And he joins us from New York.
Welcome to FRESH AIR.
Professor DON FOSTER (Vassar College): Thank you, Neal. It's good to be
CONAN: You write that the unlikely path from Shakespeare to literary
forensics turned on a misprint?
Prof. FOSTER: Well, as a graduate student at the University of California
some years ago, I was researching an old literary conundrum, Master W.H., to
whom Shakespeare's sonnets are dedicated, and had to look at everything
published by the station who published that document and found another text
a W. as common initials but who, nevertheless, seemed to know his
pretty well, and that put me on an entirely different tack of research.
CONAN: Well, W.H. is sort of the grassy knoll of Shakespearean scholarship
that has led to any number of theories ranging that Shakespeare's work were,
in fact, written by Francis Bacon to Queen Elizabeth.
Prof. FOSTER: Yeah, whole libraries have been written on the question of
is W.H. Was he the young man to whom many of the sonnets are addressed?
he the person who gave Thomas Thorpe, the publisher, a manuscript copy? And
what my own research suggested, by looking at other pamphlets and books of
time, is that it's a simple misprint, that the only begetter of these
sonnets, Master W.H., was probably intended to be to the only begetter of
these ensuing sonnets, Master W.S.H., i.e., Shakespeare himself, the man who
CONAN: Thereby going back to one of the rules of thumb of conspiracy
theories: Never rule out stupidity.
Prof. FOSTER: Yeah, in this case, a simple misprint seemed to have
more literary commentary than perhaps the sonnets themselves.
CONAN: But then you went on to this other work, W.S., and this was a
elegy that, well, turned out to be a murder mystery of its own.
Prof. FOSTER: Yes, this is a poem that hadn't received any critical or
scholarly attention prior to my looking at it, and it's easy to see why in a
first reading. It's long and long and very long and not eminently
Shakespearean. Is not Shakespeare "As You Like It." But it's--from the
page, registers its acquaintance with Shakespeare's manner. The dedication
modeled on Shakespeare's "Rape of Lucrece," and as I began reading this poem
back in 1984, I was struck by just how much Shakespeare was in it, and yet
Shakespeare scholars had never discused it.
CONAN: How did you then go about finding a technique, a literary forensics?
Is this something that pre-existed your research?
Prof. FOSTER: I sometimes see myself credited as the inventor of a new
science, which is giving me more credit than I deserve. As early as the
Lindbergh kidnapping, this kind of work was being performed by scholars for
police and FBI and other investigators. The police detectives themselves
to do some of this kind of work. And in literary studies, it's been a field
of research at least as far as the medieval period.
CONAN: Take us through the elements of language and grammar and
What of those things do you use to try to identify an author?
Prof. FOSTER: Well, as in a crime, no single line of a fingerprint would be
decisive. No single bit of linguistic evidence should be described as a
stylistic fingerprint, is a phrase that is sometime is used for this kind of
work. It does take a pattern of evidence so I begin just by assuming that
nothing is irrelevant. I look at spelling, punctuation, diction, use and
misuse of--standard use and misuse of various words, the syntax--that is,
way the sentences are put together--reading material that is contributed to
the text. In the case of the funeral elegy it included, for example, some
manuscript works that were known to be in possession of Shakespeare's
company. And, even in some cases where information is available, the
formatting on the printed page or typewritten page, the manner in which
are assembled, and try to extract from the evidence a balanced case both for
and against the possible suspects.
CONAN: Was there one element that finally was the straw that broke this
literary camel's back?
Prof. FOSTER: It was in 1995 that I finally was willing to say that the
evidence seems quite compelling, that Shakespeare must be the author of this
text, and some other scholars joined me in that conclusion. And so in
of 1996, I suddenly found the elegy for William Peter(ph) front-page news in
The New York Times.
CONAN: But it was weight of evidence and no single smoking gun.
Prof. FOSTER: No, I'd say even today there's not a smoking gun. If it were
absolutely conclusive we would find, I guess, you would say, universal
among Shakespeare scholars, but there are--others still have done a number
efforts to find someone else who might fit the bill. So far, no other
candidate has emerged.
CONAN: Not even Queen Elizabeth?
Prof. FOSTER: Well, it depends on whom you ask. Some would say that Queen
Elizabeth or Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe not only wrote this poem
"Hamlet" and "King Lear."
CONAN: Don Foster's my guest. He analyzes words, grammar, punctuation and
syntax to identify authors of anonymous material. He's written a book
"Author Unknown." Your book is subtitled, "On the Trail of Anonymous." And
that could be taken as a direct reference to one of the more celebrated case
that you've been involved in and that is the author of "Primary Colors,"
Prof. FOSTER: Well, it was just when The New York Times featured its story
on the funeral elegy that Random House released "Primary Colors," and it
straight to the top of the sales charts. So as I was fielding calls about a
funeral elegy from press and news organizations around the world, suddenly I
also began getting calls, `Who wrote "Primary Colors?"' Well, I hadn't read
"Primary Colors" and didn't really think I could be of any help at all, but
New York Magazine was persistent and kept calling back saying, `We'd really
like you to help us out here on identifying who is Anonymous. And finally,
gave it the old college try.
CONAN: That's a great philosophical question: `Who is Anonymous?' But it
was a specific question in this case and it took you about a week.
Prof. FOSTER: Well, I couldn't have done it that quickly without help from
the editors of New York Magazine, who kept sending me electronic text by
possible suspects: Michael Kelly and Lisa Grunwald and Garry Trudeau and
Christopher Buckley, one after another of whom I examined and had to rule
with some discouragement, finally thinking I wasn't going to find, myself,
wrote "Primary Colors."
CONAN: Listeners may not remember but this was a cause celebre at the time.
It was a big controversy over who was the author of this book and it was the
best-selling book at the time.
Prof. FOSTER: Anonymous was a much bigger deal for many Washington
than Shakespeare because, after all, it appeared that the book might have
written by a journalist, someone close to Clinton, and it became a wonderful
guessing game. It was a very lively novel and it seemed to be a (French
spoken) in which each of the characters or at least each of the main
characters was either a politician or pundit or someone on the inside track,
so it was a tremendous hit with journalists, as with the public at large.
CONAN: There was a Washington Post list of, I think it was 35 possible
suspects, and I think they listed Joe Klein as 50:1. In the event, you
a strong clue as to the true identity of Anonymous in the very first line of
Prof. FOSTER: Well, the Post's odds for Joe Klein were 50:1 against, so
not someone that I looked at right away when I began my work. I simply
looking for vocabulary. What other journalist, political novelist uses
that appear in "Primary Colors"? And began with the most unusual ones. It
wasn't until near the end of my work, which is where I put this bit of
evidence in my article as well, that I found out what might be read as kind
a hidden self-disclosure in the opening lines of the book. The narrator of
the novel is a black man, Henry Burton, and he tells his readers, `I am
and not so dark.' And I thought in saw in that after finding that Joe Klein
was the likely author of "Primary Colors" that it was kind of an in joke.
am small'; Klein is the German word for small. `I am Klein and I'm not
CONAN: One of the problems, you write, is that when you're identifying
long-dead poets, they're not going to stand up and deny their authorship.
Prof. FOSTER: Well, in this case my suspect wasn't dead and he did stand up
and say, `It's not me. I didn't do it. This is silly.'
CONAN: And you were then excoriated and even subsequently had your own
moments of doubt.
Prof. FOSTER: Well, it did take me back, at first, when Joe Klein went on
national television and on CBS and in--again in Newsweek, his two employers
backing him up, saying that he was not the author and that I had made a big
mistake. And for--the next six months were a little tense as Shakespeareans
debated why they should believe Shakespeare wrote a rather dull funeral poem
if, in fact, I also said that Joe Klein had written "Primary Colors" and got
CONAN: And, in fact, one of the reasons you had undertaken this project was
to vindicate the techniques you'd applied to Shakespeare.
Prof. FOSTER: Well, this was my idea. It didn't seem to be working out too
well. It seemed in January and February and March of 1996 as if I had made a
bad career move with that attribution.
CONAN: Also, you seemed to believe that Joe Klein, as a nationally
journalist, wouldn't flat-out lie and, in fact, his sort of semi denials of
being the author before your article appeared in New York magazine--those
equivocations were one of the things that led you toward him, or at least
added to the body of evidence.
Prof. FOSTER: After coming to the conclusion that Joe Klein wrote "Primary
Colors," I had to look and see what, in fact, he had said on the subject.
only denials I could find seemed pretty equivocal to me, which, at least, I
took some reassurance in the thought that he wouldn't come out and say, `No,
this is wrong.' But, in fact, that's how it turned out.
CONAN: So when the press conference happened and Joe Klein came out and
`I'm Joe Klein and I am the author of "Primary Colors," suddenly, this six
months that you had gone through, of being challenged not only on your
identification of Joe Klein but on the whole Shakespearean issue before
that--you were suddenly the most prominent literary attribution man on the
Prof. FOSTER: Well, I had more or less ducked out of sight, not returning
calls about this. I was a little leery of "Primary Colors" after six months
of stressful consideration whether I ought at least to have bit my tongue
not made the attribution. But other investigators, police and prosecutors,
defenders, lawyers, saw in the work that I had done a practical application
for the work that they often do that I had never really considered myself,
which is that there are many anonymous and questioned documents out there in
the real world that need an author as well.
CONAN: My guest is Don Foster. His new book is "Author Unknown: On the
Trail of Anonymous." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: My guest is Don Foster, a Shakespearean scholar and literary
His new book is titled "Author Unknown."
Most of us probably recite "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" without
more than a sugarplum or two. The famous poem was written by Clement Moore,
but it turns out that there has long been another claim to the authorship of
this poem. And Don Foster has most recently found himself on the front page
of The New York Times in an article discussing the authorship of "The Visit
Prof. FOSTER: Well, Neil, if you'd asked me a year ago who wrote "The Night
Before Christmas," I would have said Clement Clark Moore. Then one hot,
August afternoon I received a phone call from a woman who identified herself
as Mary VanDeusen(ph), the great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of
Henry Livingston, a name that meant nothing to me. But Henry Livingston
in fact, a sometime resident of my hometown and a soldier in the
War. His family, as far back as his own children, have claimed that it was
he, not Clement Clark Moore, who wrote "The Night Before Christmas" and that
an injustice has been done that was not yet corrected. And I was called in
investigate this problem.
CONAN: Well, you're called in on a lot of things. What differentiated this
from--you'll excuse--from crackpots?
Prof. FOSTER: Well, I get far more requests than I can usually assist with.
And in this case I was inclined to politely decline. But Mary VanDeusen was
quite persistent and read a bit of Moore's verse, a little bit of Henry
Livingston and told me some of the story. And I was, at the time, writing
book "Author Unknown" and I thought, `Well, there might be a story here.'
it turned out to be--it turned out to be a much bigger story, more
story than I could have anticipated.
CONAN: Where did the trail lead you?
Prof. FOSTER: Well, at first, it led only to a dead end; a family
do you do with that?--and some verses by Livingston that sounded quite a bit
like "Night Before Christmas" and some verses by Moore that sounded nothing
all like "The Night Before Christmas." There were stories of the two
suspects' characters and lives. Henry Livingston was a jovial man who gave
out gifts of wine to the Indians at Christmastime and who actually banqueted
them. He was a poet for children. He sketched pictures for children and
all-around, well-loved man.
Clement Clark Moore was a Bible scholar; fine man; quite stodgy; one, you
might say--a little bit curmudgeonly who--his verse was of a much more
and moralizing variety. But none of that finally constituted evidence. And
after spending a couple of weeks on this problem, I was ready to bail on it
when, finally, some additional documents rehooked my interest. And by the
time that trail led to its conclusion, I found myself confronted with the
unavoidable conclusion that Henry Livingston, in fact, was the author of
poem and Clement Clark Moore, an impostor.
CONAN: And, again, what was the straw that broke the--well, let me mix my
metaphors here. What was the straw that broke the smoking gun?
Prof. FOSTER: Well, it was a twisted trail that led me to the Poughkeepsie
Journal, where much of Livingston's verse was published, and to the New York
Historical Society library and hither and yon. The evidence for
authorship and the evidence against Moore's continued to mount. I guess
finally did it for me was the argument that Moore would not, could not tell
lie. He was a Bible professor. He would not have accepted the credit for
this poem, if, in fact, he didn't write it. And what I found in looking at
Moore's track record is not only that he would, but did, and, in fact, at
one point late in life, even took credit for another man's entire book.
CONAN: Very few of us would know anything by Clement Moore or allegedly by
Clement Moore other than "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," but at the
I guess, he was a regularly published writer?
Prof. FOSTER: Well, like many poets of the time, much of his poetry was
published anonymously under the pseudonym `L' and various other--even though
his name was Moore. And it was not poetry that was particularly engaging.
It goes something like `the shame, shame, heartrending thoughts;
stain that Britain's and Columbia's fare should deign, nay, strive their
native beauties to enhance by arts first taught by prostitutes of France.'
That's Moore on cosmetics. And on almost every subject he's quite severe in
censoring the sinfulness of his fellow Americans. He wrote one prose tract
denouncing Thomas Jefferson as a danger to the commonwealth.
Prof. FOSTER: And one finds in Henry Livingston a very different spirit.
fact, the two men disagreed on almost every topic. Livingston was for
education; Moore was against it. Livingston favored the education of women;
Moore opposed it. Livingston was opposed to slavery; Moore owned slaves.
so it makes Livingston the emotional favorite.
Prof. FOSTER: And in this case, the evidence finally led to Livingston's
as well. And I think he--his family will be glad that his claim has finally
CONAN: But when Moore made his claim, wasn't there anybody around to say,
like Joe Klein, `I did it'?
Prof. FOSTER: Well, Livingston, himself, was long dead by the time this
"Night Before Christmas" became associated with Moore's name. When it was
associated with Clement Moore's name, he said nothing for many, many years.
And meanwhile, the poem made him famous. In 1844--this is, now, almost 40
years after the poem was first written and almost 30 years after it
a little more than 30 years after it was--after its first extant
He published "The Night Before Christmas" with his poems and quietly
credit for it.
CONAN: Do you feel that you have now established the techniques that you
used as a science as precise as fingerprinting or as precise as DNA to
absolutely identify the authors of certain works?
Prof. FOSTER: Neal, that's an interesting question. The comparison of
linguistic evidence to DNA or fingerprint analysis is a common one and I
not inappropriate. But there are limitations to any metaphor. And, in this
case, I would have to say that scientific evidence of the kind that has
itself again and again and again in fingerprint work and DNA work has to be
considered more decisive. If we had Henry Livingston's fingerprints on an
original manuscript of "The Night Before Christmas," I don't think there
have to be any reason for a chapter on this controversy in my book.
CONAN: Is there any area of literary controversy that you think is now ripe
for this kind of analysis?
Prof. FOSTER: Well, in literary studies there's some new controversy that
arises every year; most recently, one involving Ernest Hemingway. I'm
in the future, I think, to let other literary scholars duke it out over
kinds of problems. I've got--I guess I'm feeling the desire to take a
bit of a break from text analysis and literary attribution to try my hand at
some other kinds of endeavors.
CONAN: Back to Shakespeare.
Prof. FOSTER: Well, back to Shakespeare and back to the classroom. I teach
at Vassar; I have wonderful students there. And it's really the study of
literary text and the experience of classroom that I entered literary
for, and it is to that that I would like to return.
CONAN: Thanks very much.
Prof. FOSTER: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Don Foster's book is "Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous."
He's a professor of English literature at Vassar College.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: Coming up, David Bianculli on the TV networks' election nightmare.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: David Bianculli on the television networks' errors
in reporting results of the 2000 presidential election
NEAL CONAN, host:
Television's coverage of the 2000 presidential election turned out to be
historic in several respects. But it will be best remembered for
unprecedented flip-flops. All the networks called Florida wrong twice. TV
critic David Bianculli watched all of the coverage with his bank of 11 TV
and 11 VCRs running. And he has these comments.
Despite all the criticism the media has gotten with the way it called and
miscalled Tuesday night's election, I think, by and large, the TV networks
a really good job. No, wait. No, I've changed my mind. Now I think what
they did was really irresponsible and just another part of an obvious
media conspiracy. Nah, that's not right, either. Look, if it's OK, can I
just think about it some more and report back in a day or two? Or, to put
another way, what the hell happened there?
Viewers who watched TV's election coverage Tuesday night were treated to--or
tortured by--a roller coaster of emotions and conflicting information that
unprecedented in the history of televised politics. It was incredible,
unforgettable television. We've never seen anything like it before and,
hopefully, we never will again.
If you stopped watching before 10 PM Tuesday night, the clear inference was
that Gore had it all but locked up. After 10, it was a nail-biter. After
it was time to get used to saying `President Bush' again. And after 3, who
knew? Not the anchors, that's for sure. Florida went from undecided to
to undecided to Bush, then back to undecided. After the networks had taken
from Gore and given it to Bush, the prospect of taking it back again, which
they eventually did, left them all shell-shocked and a little bit ashamed.
(Excerpt from CBS election night coverage)
Mr. DAN RATHER (Anchor, CBS): So for those of you who went to bed or
started--went off to brush your teeth and come back and say, `Hello. What's
this, Dan Rather?' Well, I've got to tell you, folks: A, I don't know; B,
don't know anybody who does know. What we do know...
(End of excerpt)
BIANCULLI: Over on NBC, Tom Brokaw was equally uncertain.
(Excerpt from NBC election night coverage)
Mr. TOM BROKAW (Anchor, NBC): Although I'm curious about why we're not
seeing the governor yet. And we haven't seen Vice President Al Gore.
they're waiting for all the votes to be counted; all the I's to be dotted;
the T's to be crossed.
Unidentified Anchor: Mm-hmm.
Mr. BROKAW: That would be something if the networks managed to blow it
in one night.
(End of excerpt)
BIANCULLI: They did. It was. Purely as a TV event, it was phenomenal.
stakes couldn't be higher; the extremes couldn't be sharper; the plot twists
couldn't be more dramatic or unexpected. Whether you watched one network or
flipped among several, you saw the same results, the same mistakes and the
same incredible reversals. The networks all blew it. No argument about
But they blew it with the best of intentions, relying upon the best polling
data and most sophisticated technology at their joint and individual
The problem, with a national election hinging on a race as astoundingly
as the one in Florida, is that no prediction or exit poll could be accurate
enough. Making any call, in retrospect, turned out to be the wrong call.
there wasn't any irresponsible rush to judgment or competitive zeal that led
to those twin bad calls about Florida. All networks relied on the same
polling organization, the Voter News Service, for their key sets of data.
It's just that when the voting differential between the leading candidates
dwindles from thousands to hundreds, no statistical model is that
Gore came within minutes of conceding prematurely early yesterday morning
because the networks had just as prematurely anointed Bush the winner. When
the numbers are as close as they were in Florida, the phrase `too close to
call' should be taken by the networks as gospel. Four years from now,
of what happened this time, I'm absolutely certain it will be. Well, OK,
maybe not certain. Maybe the networks won't have learned anything at all.
Can I get back to you on that?
CONAN: David Bianculli is a TV critic for the New York Daily News.
CONAN: Thanks for listening. For Terry Gross, I'm Neal Conan.
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