Advice to Robert Caro, America’s fourth man at Los Alamos, M-W’s word of the year, and more: newsletter, December 13, 2019

December 16, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,661) on Friday, December 13, 2019.


This newsletter, I say with some pride, is read by folks in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and other places of which I may not be aware. As the year ends, I thank you all for taking the time to open, read, and occasionally respond to items that I have included. Many of you have been extraordinarily kind in your comments and compliments, and I appreciate that more than I can say.

One reader this past week reminded me of the two times that I lived in the United Kingdom — in London for seven months in 1975, and in Edinburgh for eight months (October to May) in 1977-78. I did not have a television on either occasion, and one of my great pleasures then was listening to the BBC’s Radio 4. The plays, concerts, documentaries, and concerts were extraordinary, and I was captivated — having grown up with radio as only a music medium. I am not surprised that podcasts are so popular today.

So, with whatever you’re listening to, watching, or reading, have a great weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,656 subscribers and had a 28.1 percent open rate; 6 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Advice to Robert Caro: Turn every page

When Robert Caro began his reporting career for Newsday in New York, an editor gave him a key piece of advice. Caro was working on his first big investigative story and going through lots of files. The editor’s advice: “Turn every page.”

Caro took that advice to heart, and now he is one of the best and most revered reporters/biographers in the world. His multi-volume work on Lyndon Johnson goes beyond magisterial. And he isn’t finished. The latest volume ends with Johnson assuming the presidency in 1963.

In his reporting memoir titled Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, Caro tells many fascinating stories of his research. One in particular has to do with a time when “Turn every page” wasn’t good enough.

Much of what had been written about Lyndon Johnson’s early life — especially college years — had been glowing, according to Caro. He was affable and popular when he was a student at Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos. Or so said the stories that Caro read. The stories that Caro heard, however, were different.

LBJ stole the student council election and blackmailed a girl opposing his candidate to make her drop out of the contest. Those were the stories he heard. The problem, at first, was that Caro could not find anyone to confirm them. And Caro doubled his own problem. He had a self-imposed rule that if there was no documentation, one live source wouldn’t be enough. He had to have at least two.

It took some doing, but Caro finally tracked down a man who confirmed everything he had heard and more.

Now, he needed a second source. He found another of LBJ’s classmates, a woman who consented to speak to him over the phone but whose tone was impatient and acerbic. As he was asking her questions, she finally said, “I don’t know why you’re asking these questions. It’s all there in black and white.”

She was referring to the college of annual for 1930, the year Johnson graduated, something which Caro had seen and read thoroughly. He asked her to look at her book and tell him what pages she was referring to. She did, and Caro checked his copy for the pages she named. They weren’t there.

Looking closely, I could see now that they had been cut out, but so carefully, and so close to the spine, perhaps with a razor, that unless you were looking as closely as I was, you wouldn’t notice.

The next day, Caro drove from Austin — where he was living at the time — to San Marcos and found a used bookstore that had copies of the annual. In the first few he looked at, the pages had been excised as carefully as they had been in his personal copy. Finally, Caro found a copy that had been missed, and his source was right. The whole story was there “in black and white.” In addition, Caro discovered much more information that was unflattering to Johnson.

It was information that someone went to a lot of trouble to expunge.

A Detective’s Worst Foe: ‘Flawed Thinking’ | The Crime Report

On television, the police detective often “plays a hunch,” a gut feeling about a difficult case based on experience, a small piece of evidence, or even nothing at all. It usually works out to his or her benefit.

In real life, however, that’s a dangerous game.

Prosecutors and those who study the criminal justice system and the life-threatening mistakes it makes are concluding that a major source of error is investigative procedure.

Much of the national attention to justice mistakes has focused on wrongful convictions that send innocent individuals to prison—or in some cases to Death Row.  But a growing body of scholarship has begun to examine why criminal investigations can go so badly wrong at the “gateway” to the system. “The consequences of investigative failure are huge,” said D. Kim Rossmo, a criminologist at Texas State University, noting that sending the wrong individual to prison for murder meansthe real killer is still at large. Source: A Detective’s Worst Foe: ‘Flawed Thinking’ | The Crime Report

One of the things they are discussing is “confirmation bias,” zeroing in on evidence that confirms suspicions rather than scrupulously subjecting it to thorough examination and skepticism. This article in The Crime Report briefly describes where this line of thinking is taking us.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

America’s Fourth Man: the spies at Los Alamos

For many years, we have known that there were three spies at Los Alamos who passed atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets as the bomb was being developed during World War II. They were Klaus FuchsDavid Greenglass (the brother of Ethel Rosenberg), and Theodore Hall.

Now there is a fourth: Oscar Seborer.

His identity was uncovered through years of painstaking research by two academics, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes. Their article is titled “On the Trail of a Fourth Soviet Spy at Los Alamos” is in the current issue of Studies in Intelligence, the CIA’s in-house journal.

Their work was covered in a recent article in the New York Times.

From an examination of archival materials from the K.G.B., the Soviet Union’s main intelligence agency, Mr. Klehr and Mr. Haynes learned about a shadowy group of moles in the United States known as the “Relative’s Group.” Three of the faction’s members — code-named Relative, Godfather and Godsend — were brothers. According to the study, the archival documents said that Godsend was at Los Alamos and that he was providing secret information on “Enormous,” the K.G.B.’s code name for the American project. Source: Fourth Spy Unearthed in U.S. Atomic Bomb Project – The New York Times

Klehr is an emeritus professor of politics and history at Emory University, and Haynes is a former historian for the Library of Congress.

This is one of those twisted true-espionage tales that contains many of the elements of a Joseph Kanon spy novel. It also brings home the point that despite the FBI’s efforts, America’s efforts to create an atomic bomb were not among its best-kept secrets.

Word of the Year 2019: for Merriam-Webster it’s ‘they’

The Oxford English Dictionary folks have had their say. Now, it’s the turn for the Merriam-Webster crew to weigh in.

The Merriam-Webster Word of the Year for 2019 is they.

It reflects a surprising fact: even a basic term—a personal pronoun—can rise to the top of our data. Although our lookups are often driven by events in the news, the dictionary is also a primary resource for information about language itself, and the shifting use of they has been the subject of increasing study and commentary in recent years. Lookups for they increased by 313% in 2019 over the previous year.

English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singularpronouns like everyone or someone, and as a consequence they has been used for this purpose for over 600 years. Source: Word of the Year 2019 | They | Merriam-Webster

So be it.

“They” has been appropriated for singular reference for many years, and as a former writing teacher, I have corrected many a “they” for the more proper “he or she.” I’m out of that game now, but it’s still difficult for me to use “they” for a single entity.

This is, of course, just another instance of the world marching past me.

The article linked above also contains other words that have had the most look-ups this year — some surprising, such as “crawdad,” and some not so much, such as “quid pro quo.”


Nina L.: Very happy to see the fame of one of my idols (Mary Beard, see last week’s newsletter) has reached your shores. Isn’t she amazing?

Over here (the United Kingdom) we’re fortunate enough that we have more or less regular series by her on both BBC4 and Channel 5. And of course we have on-demand telly, where her stuff is – thankfully – perennial. She is that rarest of species, an amazing scholar and academic with a gift for everyday communication, who makes a traditionally considered too high-brow, doughy and boring subject not only accessible to everyone, but captivating.

Disenchanted with TV as we are in our household, and the role it is currently playing in what we call “dumbifying the masses”, we can’t but feel the days were a bit better and brighter when her type of feature were the privileged broadcasting content. 

I don’t know if you are aware of Jonathan Miller’s passing last week, or even if you know who he was. For my generation, and in his time, he was a bit of a maverick too, just as Mary Beard tended to be viewed a few years back, none the least because of her much-criticised down to earth appearance. On the 27th Nov, as his obituary ran, the BBC put on a rather good documentary about his life and work, which hubby and I watched, and which prompted us to reminisce about the days when the good old Beeb was a vehicle for culture and popular knowledge… Or maybe, as we approach 3rd age while witnessing the current trends of deliberate disinformation and reduction to the lowest possible denominator, we have just become, ourselves, a wee bit nostalgic, a wee bit “saudosistas” (and there’s a good word from my old world!).
I love your newsletters. They too represent “a good thing”: just enough trivia knowledge of the kind I can never get enough, and enough of a weekly thought-prompt to keep me company for a while. And for all of that, I do thank you.

Eric S.: I read with interest the column about the Iranian hostage news coverage, and how journalists complied with governments’ request to delay breaking the story. That was 40 years ago. The reporter asks with skepticism whether a similar situation — journalists agreeing to delay publication — could happen today because of the current hostile climate toward professional journalism.

The obvious answer is no. Today, anyone with a smartphone and an axe to grind can call himself or herself a journalist, ignore the dictates of SPJ ethical responsibility, only to become famous by posting the story.  And to H-E-double-hockey-stick with the consequences.
Brennan L.: I too would prefer gifts to charity rather than stuff under the tree.  My stepdaughters honored us this Christmas season with the donation of a pair of water buffalo through Heifer International.  I think they had a two-for-one special on Giving Tuesday. I’m glad they will go to someone who will benefit from them. If they came to us, we would need a bigger yard. We are always thrilled with gifts to Compassion International, Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries, Tools for Hope (a Rwandan agriculture charity managed by friends), and Second Harvest Food Bank.  There are so many worthy causes.  

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: The Blue Flute

Best quote of the week:

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. John Milton, poet (1608-1674)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Mary Beard, every Latin word, and the author accused of fraud: newsletter, December 6, 2019



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