Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Saturday Q&A

An almost equal number of questions in each of the first four sections. That particular sort of balance is unusual.

And it would appear that this week's headline theme was WAY harder than we thought, because while we have gotten some good guesses, we haven't gotten a single correct answer. The hint we gave is pretty important, specifically that a headline with "Trump" in it might or might not fit the theme. Here's another hint: The sentence "The sun is up, Ma, so now we can see the wolf in the woods!" contains four more words that fit the theme, in addition to the one word per headline from yesterday.

Current Events

R.Y. in Knoxville, TN, asks: Could Fulton County DA Fani Willis render the question of her continued work on the Trump case moot by removing herself and letting someone else lead the prosecution? Would that allow the case to be heard in the original court of jurisdiction earlier?

(V) & (Z) answer: Apparently not. The (specious) argument being made by the defense is that the damage is already done. So, her removal from the case now would not solve the "problem."

M.S. in Hamden, CT, asks: After months and months of the Stormy Daniels story, I still don't get something very basic: Why didn't Trump just pay off Daniels with his own money? It would have been much cheaper and not involved falsifying records.

(V) & (Z) answer: In the mafia, the don gives a "kill" order to a capo, the capo gives the order to a soldier, and the soldier carries out the hit. That means that there is a layer of insulation between the murderer and the don, so that the murderer is not in a position to flip on the don.

It is not hyperbole to say that The Donald often acts like the don in scenarios like this. That is to say, Trump learned a long time ago that creating a layer or two of insulation between himself and potential illegal or fraudulent activity is a wise insurance policy. If he had written a check directly to Stormy Daniels, then there would have been a document out there (i.e., the check) that strongly corroborated her story. And while she would have signed an NDA, there's no guarantee she wouldn't break it if there was more money in doing so, or that someone else might lay hands on the check.

By funneling the money through Cohen, Trump created a layer of insulation between himself and Daniels, and was also able to pass the cost off to his business and to claim a tax write-off. These latter two "advantages" don't mean that making the payment through Cohen was the "cheaper" option, but they do mean that the difference in cost between a direct payment to Daniels and an indirect payment through Cohen was not as great as it might seem.

J.C. in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, asks: I'm sorry for being so thick and not getting it. In response to my question last week, you wrote, "There were 34 counts of falsifying business records, which is a misdemeanor. However, if the falsifications were undertaken in service of some other crime, then the misdemeanors all become felonies."

This strikes me as being unfair to Donald Trump. If the jurors had no option to vote on if something was a misdemeanor or a felony, if they had no opportunity to decide that yes, there were falsified business records but no doing so in service of another crime, then it seems like The Felon Guy's civil rights were unjustly curtailed. This is a question. Could you please explain more of what I am not getting?

(V) & (Z) answer: Perhaps our wording was imprecise. The actual form in which the jurors reported their verdict has now been released; you can see it here.

If you examine the form, you will see the only option available to them, for each of the 34 counts, was to find Trump guilty or not guilty of falsifying business records in the first degree. For that bar to be cleared, not only does it have to be shown that he falsified business records, but also that he did so in service of some other illegal act. Had the jurors agreed with the falsification, but NOT with the other act, then they would have been required to acquit.

This is a very common prosecutorial strategy. That is to say, if the jury is given three options: not guilty of a crime, guilty of a lesser crime, guilty of a more serious crime, it will often split the difference and choose the lesser crime. Giving them only two options means they don't have that offramp. That obviously increases the chances of conviction of the more serious crime, but it also increases the chances of acquittal.

D.S. in Layton, UT, asks: Why doesn't the Son of Sam law apply and prevent Donald Trump from capitalizing on his convictions?

(V) & (Z) answer: The relevant law here would be the New York State Son of Sam law since, of course, it was a New York State prosecution. The original state law—which, as chance would have it, was also the first Son of Sam law—was struck down on First Amendment grounds. The updated law, passed in 2001, requires that a convicted felon notify the victims of crimes in nearly all circumstances where they (the felon) receive $10,000 or more. Then, the victims have the opportunity to sue for the money, if they can make the claim that their suffering is being used to generate profit.

In general, the law is applied when the crimes in question are violent in nature. Since Trump's crime was not violent, and since there is no real victim to notify, the Son of Sam law won't apply to him. This same question came up with Michael Cohen when he started making money off his convictions, and it had the same answer.

L.S. in Greensboro, NC, asks: Since the Republicans strongly favor gun rights, and since they are staunchly opposed to any possible restrictions on gun ownership, shouldn't they be rallying behind Hunter Biden and be up in arms about the government overreach in trying to restrict his ability to own a gun to defend himself? Isn't he being prosecuted for exercising his God-given right to buy a gun?

(V) & (Z) answer: Unlike the ACLU, the modern-day Republican Party does not stick to its principles when doing so involves defending someone they find detestable. The Democratic Party isn't great about this, either, but the Republicans are particularly bad.

It is worth pointing out, as former federal prosecutor Ankush Khardori did in a piece for Politico yesterday, that if the statute Biden is being prosecuted under is actually enforced, there are something like 20 million marijuana users (including many Republicans, obviously) who are guilty of a felony. After all, marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

W.H. in San Jose, CA, asks: Why did you decide on the headline "Mexico Elects a Woman as President" instead of "Mexico Elects a Scientist as President"? Surely scientists are much more significantly unrepresented in the political professions than women.

(V) & (Z) answer: We're not so sure that is true. Margaret Thatcher was a chemist. Jimmy Carter is a nuclear engineer. Angela Merkel is also a chemist. Bashar al-Assad is a physician. Salvador Allende was a physician.

In any event, when a predominantly Catholic country, one very much influenced by the Church's predilection toward patriarchy, elects a woman, that's the big storyline. The Church conceded that the Earth revolves around the sun three centuries ago, basically created gene theory two centuries ago, and got behind evolution almost a century ago. It still doesn't let women serve as priests.


M.W. in Northbrook, IL, asks: Given that the Overton effect has turned Ronald Reagan into a centrist, do you think that there are any lefty Republicans that could switch parties and challenge Harris, Newsom, etc. in 2028?

(V) & (Z) answer: It's not very likely, since a Republican-turned-Democrat is still a Republican in the eyes of many Democratic voters. That said, we'll give you three people who might plausibly try it: Gov. Phil Scott (R-VT), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and former Illinois representative Adam Kinzinger.

J.B. in Bend, OR, asks: Almost every other day Donald Trump has a rally or something in which he makes outrageous lies, and he gets free media coverage. What do you think of Biden holding a semi-regular 15-minute press conference to rebut Trump's lies? Sometimes he would take questions, other times the affairs of state prevent that. It would be a way of quasi-debating Trump and exposing his lies. (This would be particularly useful if the real debate doesn't happen.)

(V) & (Z) answer: We are inclined to think it's a bad idea. First, it allows Trump to dictate the narrative, Second, it makes it seem as if Biden doesn't have anything to offer other than "Trump is a liar." Third, it could lead to problems if reporters have follow-up questions and Biden can't answer them properly. Fourth, there are already plenty of people in the media calling Trump out on his lies.

D.B. in San Diego, CA, asks: I believe you've pointed out several times that the turbulent times we find ourselves in currently have precedents of a sort in U.S. history, with 1969 (civil rights, Vietnam) probably the most recent example. My son is about to turn 18 and so must register for the Selective Service System (the draft), and it got me wondering what the reaction would be if the government tried to utilize the Selective Service for conscription into the military in 2024-5. (Males must always register, it's just not currently utilized for conscription.)

I know there was some amount of "draft dodging" back in the 1960 and 1970s—I'm wondering if you could share some thoughts on American's trust in institutions with regard to the draft for current times versus the late 1960s? My sense is that the draft would go much worse right now (never mind that some large fraction of Congress would probably object). I'm not sure it would even matter which party held the presidency—the "other" party is always completely wrong these days.

(V) & (Z) answer: First of all, the nature of American politics is such that whatever party does not hold the presidency tends to be the anti-war party. Not all members, necessarily, but that's where most of the opposition is found, in most cases (Vietnam, under Lyndon B. Johnson, is the exception).

Second, there have been five wars in U.S. history where a draft was used to populate the armed forces: the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. What those experiences make very clear is that a draft really only works if it serves to, in effect, tap a willing civilian on the shoulder and say "OK, your turn." To a fairly large extent, the draftees of the middle three wars were open to service, and so complied when their number came up. The draftees of the Civil War and Vietnam, by contrast, were largely not open to service, and so many resisted being drafted or else became poor and unreliable soldiers.

Given the Vietnam experience, re-instituting the draft would be extremely difficult and would likely be counterproductive. It is considerably more likely that the government would rely on technology, and on various "back door" drafts, like unilaterally extending existing soldiers' terms of service, or activating national guard troops, or recalling reserves back to service. If a straight draft WAS going to be re-instituted, it would only work if the war in question was very popular, and was seen as fundamentally just and righteous. That, in turn, would certainly mean that the U.S. had been directly and violently attacked by some adversary (say, the Russians bombing Alaska). It is inconceivable that Americans today would accept a draft that involves sending Americans to fight in some other country's war.

J.F. in Sloatsburg, NY, asks: Given that I've gotten three live polling calls in the past two weeks relating to the state associated with my cell phone's area code (which is two states and 7 years ago) I have to ask: How are pollsters adjusting for the mobility of cell phone numbers? Or are they doing so at all? And is the fact that most people keep their cell phones when they move, plus the greater mobility of most Democratic-leaning groups, yet another source of error in the polls?

(V) & (Z) answer: As far as we know, there is no technical way for a pollster to geolocate a cell phone. However, the first question could be, and usually is: Are you currently registered to vote in [the state your area code is in]?

S.P. in Harrisburg, PA, asks: Granted this is not reflected in polls at this point, but do you see any chance that the border will be a much more significant liability for Biden than currently thought? Do you think that states like New Mexico and possibly Colorado could be in play due to the border? Do you think that the border could partly explain the polls giving Trump a lead in Nevada, a state that has had more polls?

(V) & (Z) answer: Clearly, he thinks it's a liability, hence the executive order on shutting down the border. We don't think that the border will put Colorado or New Mexico in play, and we think Nevada is much more attributable to economic conditions, and the slow recovery of the tourism industry. As a general rule, immigration is a more salient issue in states far from the Mexican border, possibly because those folks don't have all that much direct experience with the issue, and so are more susceptible to wild tales of out-of-control fentanyl-smuggling street gangs.

P.M. in Pensacola, FL, asks: How much does it cost to conduct polling for a candidate at the national, state, or congressional level?

(V) & (Z) answer: Regardless of what level you're polling at, you need a similar number of respondents to get the desired level of precision, so the biggest cost factor is actually how the poll is conducted. If most of the work is done by a computer (robocalls, text messages, websites), and the small amount of human labor is performed by (cheap-to-employ) students, as is the case with, say, Emerson College, it's possible to conduct a poll for as little as $2,000-$3,000, with $5,000 being a more typical price tag. If the poll is done with human employees calling people and interviewing them, the cost jumps into the low-to-mid-five figures, with most in the $20,000-$40,000 range.

G.B. in Kailua, HI, asks: What/who is "SSRS" referenced in your item on polling and pollsters?

(V) & (Z) answer: Just as Kentucky Fried Chicken has made a conscious effort to be known as KFC, SSRS prefers to be known just by its initials. But it stands for "Social Science Research Solutions." They are a well-known pollster that has been around, under various names, for 40 years and has been operating under that name for over a decade. Their best-known client is CNN.


J.H. in Boston, MA, asks: You have written several times about how presidential electors can't vote for a president and vice president from the same state, so one of Donald Trump or Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) would have to move from Florida if Rubio ends up as Trump's running mate. Would they, though? We all heard about Sen. Tommy Tuberville's (R-AL) campaign in Alabama, how he lived full-time in Florida and how his nominal Alabama residence, a requirement for election as a U.S. Senator for Alabama, was not legitimate. Nothing came of it. The election was not invalidated.

What's to stop Trump or Rubio from doing the same? Are residency requirements even enforced? Personally, I would say the "not same state" requirement for running mates is much more esoteric and useless than the "a senator should live in the state they represent" rule, which should actually matter. If we're not going to enforce the latter, then I'm all in favor of just ignoring the former.

(V) & (Z) answer: First, the attention paid to a presidential election is many orders of magnitude greater than the attention paid to a U.S. Senate election.

Second, by the time the Tuberville issue was discovered, he was already a sitting senator. It would have been difficult, and possibly illegal, to try to remove him. By contrast, if a Trump-Rubio ticket were to win, it would be a huge topic of discussion that when the Florida electors met, they could not legally vote for both men. If they tried it, not only would the House be justified in tossing those EVs out, it could plausibly decide that the Trump votes were the illegal ones.

Third, it is very easy to nominally change one's state of residence. Dick Cheney did it in 2000; nobody really thought he was living in Wyoming then.

Add it up, and it is a far wiser course of action to just go through the motions, as opposed to daring the Congress to enforce the Constitution.

B.B. in Buda, TX, asks: I keep reading articles about Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) and other GOP House members waffling on whether or not they'll accept the results of this November's election. I'm hoping the Democrats who, as far as I know aren't election-deniers, will be able to retake the House and this ensure certification of the election regardless of the outcome.

My question is: What's to stop Speaker Johnson from refusing to accept the results of House elections is the GOP loses the majority? I'm truly concerned about this or some other chicanery by the GOP.

(V) & (Z) answer: This is not an issue. Congress only certifies the president and VP. House and Senate elections are certified by the state secretaries of state (or the equivalent official).

D.G. in Ramsey, MN, asks: Minnesota switched from caucuses to a presidential primary in 2020, and I thought I knew how things worked until I read a Minnesota supreme court decision released Wednesday, which included the following tidbit:

Once the results of the primary election are declared, "the secretary of state must notify the chair of each party of the results." Minn. Stat. §207A.12(c) (2022). Unlike in other primary elections, the winner of the presidential nomination primary does not necessarily appear on the general election ballot. Instead, the party chair informs the Secretary of State of their party's presidential candidate for the general election ballot. See Minn. Stat. §§208.03–.04 (2022).

Emphasis is mine. Do you know whether this is a one-off, or do other states allow the parties to ignore the votes? Has this ever happened? I know some states have canceled primaries, but holding one and then ignoring the results would seem especially odious.

(V) & (Z) answer: It is not uncommon to have non-binding primaries or caucuses; this year, the most notable example was the Republicans in Nevada.

There are two basic ways this works. The first is that voters vote for delegates to some higher level of organization (for example, county delegates). And then, those people might elect district delegates. And then, those people elect state delegates, who make the actual decision.

The alternative is that the primary/caucus is just a straw poll (also known as a "beauty contest") that serves as a useful advisory to the party officials who make the actual decision, but is otherwise irrelevant.

There are two major reasons to do it this way. The first, which may be seen as a bug by some and a feature by others, is that it puts the decision-making in the hands of the most heavily invested (and, ideally, best-informed) members of the party. The second is that it allows a state to make a statement in support to a candidate early in the process, but then to shift gears later, as needed, depending on how things play out.

J.A. in Charlotte, NC, asks: Both Alaska and Maine use a form of ranked choice ballot in most elections. But I am curious about whether the presidential election in these two states will be conducted using a ranked choice ballot, or the more familiar first-past-the-post method.

(V) & (Z) answer: There has been some squabbling in court about this but, at the moment, both states are set to use a ranked choice ballot for president. In Alaska it will be done statewide, and in Maine it will be done both statewide and in each of the state's two congressional districts.

The system has only been in place for one cycle in Maine (and none in Alaska), and in 2020, Joe Biden won a majority in both Maine and in ME-01 and Donald Trump won a majority in ME-02, so the ranked choice voting did not actually come into effect for the presidential race. If and when it does, there will probably be lawsuits.

P.M. in Reading, England, UK, asks: Do you think the U.S. would be better or worse off if the Constitution had limited the presidency to one term (perhaps of 6 years rather than 4)?

(V) & (Z) answer: Worse off. First of all, 6 years is a long time to be stuck with a president who has shown within their first year that they don't have the right stuff. Second, this would mean a president would spend their entire term as a lame duck.

G.S. in New Plymouth, Taranaki, New Zealand, asks: I just read a rather disturbing piece about the Texas Republican platform.

Maybe it is my constitutionally focused brain, or that I have had two glasses of sav blanc on Friday night after a particularly tough week at work and struggling to focus on the real issues, but the bit that really got me going through was "The Texas state legislature, which meets only in odd-numbered years, will open for business in January 2025." How on earth can a state of tens of millions of people have a legislature only open every second year? What do they do for an annual budget? What happens if there is a crisis in an even numbered year? How long is there between elections?

(V) & (Z) answer: This tradition, such as it is, dates back to the nineteenth century. Back then, travel times were so onerous for some members that a session of Congress met for roughly 6 months (December to July) and then for roughly 3 months (December to March). So, for example, the Congress that was sitting for the second half of the Civil War had a brief session in March (March 4-14, 1863), at which many newly elected members were not present, then met from December 7, 1863-July 4, 1864, and then met for a final time from December 5, 1864-March 3, 1865.

Back then, most states followed a similar template. And the Southern states, with a long history of being anti-government, adopted a particularly aggressive version of the template (often one session every 2 years instead of two sessions) and largely kept the template long after it was useful or sensible. Texas is hardly the only Southern state to do this.

Generally, these states adopt budgets in 2-year increments, and they also empower the governor to take care of any crises that might arise. If the legislature is absolutely needed, then a special session is called—a tool that is used much more these days than it was 150 years ago. In general, legislators are elected for 2-year or 4-year terms, so it's very possible to serve a full term and yet only be "on the job" for a couple of weeks or a month, in total. In these states, members are generally paid tiny salaries (for example, in Texas, it's $7,200 a year plus a $221 per diem for every day the legislature is in session), and it's expected they will have full-time jobs in addition to their political position. When this approach first came into effect, that full-time job was, generally speaking, lawyer and/or plantation owner.

S.I. in Philadelphia, PA, asks: You wrote, in passing, that Donald Trump has more than one passport. Besides his normal U.S. passport, what are the others?

(V) & (Z) answer: He has a U.S. diplomatic passport, which is distinguishable from a regular passport because it says "Diplomatic Passport" and has a black, rather than blue, cover. He could also have had an "Official Passport," which has a maroon cover and is issued to members of the military but, you know, bone spurs.

If Trump has any other passports (say, issued by a foreign nation), that fact is not publicly known.


F.S. in Cologne, Germany, asks: You wrote: "[W]hen a historian writes a book, there is much motivation to reach BIG conclusions revealing something that was previously UNKNOWN. Some books legitimately manage to pull that off." So which historians managed to do it, and which BIG conclusions did they reach?

(V) & (Z) answer: There are hundreds or thousands of examples in each sub-field and sub-discipline of history, so all we can do is give you a few illustrative examples from the sub-field (Z) knows best, which is U.S. history:

In case you can't tell, the department where (Z) earned all of his degrees is known for its focus on race, class and gender.

D.R. in Phoenix, AZ, asks: We are having a debate about George Washington's famous Farewell Address in which, among other things, he warns against "foreign entanglements." It is my contention that this should be considered in the context of a brand new country which was quite weak, militarily speaking. My debate opponent counters that because we had just defeated the mighty British Empire in the Revolutionary War, the lack of a strong military was not much on the mind of the first president when issuing his warning.

I find the situation roughly analogous to the Vietnam War: a global superpower chased out of a distant land by a ragtag bunch of guerrilla warriors. Eventually, the superpower decides either that there is no path to victory, or it's just not worth all that blood and treasure. So to boil it down, to what extent was the relative military weakness of the United States a consideration in Washington's warning about entanglements? And is my Vietnam analogy apt, or not very?

(V) & (Z) answer: Your Vietnam analogy is very apt. The United States won the Revolutionary War because the British decided it just wasn't worth it to keep fighting, given the considerable costs and logistical difficulties of fighting a war so far from Great Britain.

And Washington, when he delivered his farewell address, knew full well the military challenges facing the U.S. in the late eighteenth century. First, there were the European powers, most obviously Britain and France, but also the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. Then there were the pirates, most importantly the Barbary Pirates. There were also the Native Americans who were, on the whole, stronger militarily than the U.S. at that particular point in time.

On the day that Washington left the presidency, you know how many soliders there were in the U.S. Army? About 2,600. You know how many warships were in the U.S. Navy? Zero. Washington knew that eventually the U.S. would build up its defenses (there would be six Navy frigates completed in the 5 years after he left office), but he also knew that the country was at least a decade from being able to cope with any sort of serious military entanglement.

J.J.C. in Silver Spring, MD, asks: I recently finished reading Rachel Maddow's book, Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism, which describes the efforts of the Nazi regime, in many cases using American officials as surrogates, to promote the Nazi agenda in this country and especially to keep the U.S. from entering World War II on the side of the Allies. From what I gathered, Hitler was clearly alarmed at what a U.S. entry could do to his grand design and perhaps even to his ultimate victory. My question is: Were the Nazis pleased or dismayed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? It certainly ensured a U.S. declaration against Japan, and another against Germany shortly thereafter. What is your sense of the German high command's position on the Japanese sneak attack?

(V) & (Z) answer: There is no question that Adolf Hitler was delighted by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Because he rarely explained himself to subordinates, and because he rarely put his thoughts about such matters to paper, it's less clear exactly why he was delighted. Here is a list of some of the reasons; it's not exhaustive and the relative importance of each reason is open to debate:

Note also that it was actually Germany who first declared war on the U.S. (on December 11, 1941), not the other way around.

A.J. in Ames, IA, asks: I'm not a historian and don't play one on TV, but the 80th anniversary of D-Day (and the enormous media coverage of it) got me wondering: Was this the most important day of World War II?

(V) & (Z) answer: There are two dates in the European theater of the war that are pretty close to equal in importance: June 6, 1944 (i.e., D-Day) and September 1, 1939 (the entry of the U.K. and France into the war became a certainty). With that said, Adolf Hitler and his war machine were on a course that guaranteed British and French entry into the war eventually; Sept. 1 is just the day that eventuality became a certainty. Similarly, by 1944, the Germans were fatally compromised and were sure to lose the war eventually; June 6 is just the date that eventuality became a certainty. In other words, these were key events, but they did not necessarily change the course of the war all by themselves.

Anf for that reason, we are going to argue that the most important day of World War II was June 4, 1942, which is the first day of the Battle of Midway. That battle deprived Japan of all of her remaining functional aircraft carriers, put her on the defensive, and effectively consigned her to eventual defeat. And while the events in Europe were largely inevitable, a crushing Japanese defeat at Midway certainly was not.

We would also entertain August 6, 1945, which is the day Hiroshima was bombed. Not only did that commence the final chapter of the Japanese war effort (and of World War II), it laid the groundwork for the Cold War.

M.C. in Drogheda, Ireland, asks: Where do you think Donald Trump ranks in terms of whiners vis-à-vis all other U.S. presidents?

(V) & (Z) answer: In 1866, James Buchanan published Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, an extremely whiny book in which he blamed the Civil War on everyone except James Buchanan and predicted that history would vindicate his leadership. He was very wrong about that.

Buchanan is the only president to be in Trump's league as a whiner. We think Trump takes the crown, but reasonable minds can disagree. It's probably not a coincidence that the country's two worst presidents were its two whiniest presidents.

B.G. in Grayson, GA, asks: I thought it was obvious that Donald Trump was the worst president and Richard Nixon was the next worst. I understand you believe Nixon had some accomplishments, but why do you believe those accomplishments overcome Watergate, the lies and misuse of government power and continuing the Vietnam War for political purposes after undermining a settlement in order to get elected? Do you believe it is reasonable to view Nixon as the second-worst President ever?

(V) & (Z) answer: Sure, you can make a case for Nixon as the second-worst president ever. But to do that, you have to do three things:

  1. Overlook how very bad James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson were (particularly Buchanan). They both did enormous harm to the country, and without any redeeming accomplishments to counterbalance that harm.

  2. Ignore or discount Nixon's substantial accomplishments in foreign and domestic policy. In particular, he is virtually without question the most pro-environment president in U.S. history.

  3. Disregard that, when push really came to shove, Nixon generally did the right thing. He had a case for challenging the results of the election of 1960 and chose not to do so. When he got nailed thanks to Watergate, he eventually surrendered, left quietly, and stayed out of sight for half a decade. Contrast such behaviors to those of Donald Trump.

There is no doubt, because Nixon has so many big pros, and so many giant cons, that he's one of the most difficult presidents in U.S. history to evaluate.

A.G. in Scranton, PA, asks: As a historian, (Z), do you believe there should be some form of enforceable standard when it comes to the application of the term, "Based on a True Story," when a film is marketed?

Most of the people I used to consider serious people who were seriously committed to those old fashioned and quaint things, now so seemingly silly, truth and historical accuracy, are on the Trump Train so I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when one of them came to me and went on and on about The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare and how "these are the stories about history they should tell more about" because "it really happened just like this!"

I believe, if you agree with me that there should be some minimal standard to the whole "Based on a True Story" tag, that there should also be some serious consideration to no longer allowing such terms as "Inspired by True Events" and "Based on Real Events," as well.

(V) & (Z) answer: Would you believe that (Z) has at least one lecture on this very question, and arguably four? In his course on History and Hollywood, he engages with this question directly, and discusses with students why filmmakers are so eager to claim their film is "based on a true story." If you're interested, the handout for that lecture is here; it asks students to see if they can identify some famous "based on a true story" title cards. We will put the answers at the bottom of this page.

In any case, the most common reason for this is because one of the hardest things in film is to get the audience to suspend disbelief, and if you tell them "this really happened" then that job is way easier. However, another reason, as seen in a couple of examples on the handout, is to satirize "based on a true story" title cards. In particular, the 1996 Joel and Ethan Coen film was not remotely based on a true story; the title card is entirely tongue-in-cheek.

Meanwhile, the second lecture that is arguably on this topic is from (Z)'s California history class. In the lecture on the water wars of the early 20th century, he talks about how filmmakers, both for dramatic purposes and to avoid lawsuits, sometimes make thinly veiled "fictional" portraits of real people, which are known as roman à clefs. Showing up in that lecture are William Randolph Hearst/Citizen Kane and, more obviously, William Muholland/Chinatown, two of the most famous roman à clefs.

Finally, (Z) also has a lecture in the U.S. history survey on allegory and The Wizard of Oz (which has been mentioned in the Q&A before), and a lecture in the History and Hollywood class on allegory and communism, which is built around clips from High Noon, Spartacus and Rio Bravo.

We present all of this as foundation to our answer to your question, which is "no." Trying to regulate the use of these claims would be a bad idea for the following reasons:

So sorry, but (Z) must disagree with your premise.


P.N. in Austin, TX, asks: As a lifelong fan of science fiction, I have to ask: How hard would it be for the two of you to write a fictional, but attempting to be realistic, blog post from 5 years in the future? What about 10, or 20 years?

(V) & (Z) answer: It would not be especially difficult to write something that is at least plausible. However, if we wrote such a thing now and you went back in 5/10/20 years and read it, we think you would find that our accuracy rate was very low.

P.N. in Austin, TX, asks: When I first tried to click on the link to Joe Biden's speech on Friday, the James K. Polk song by They Might Be Giants came up instead. It was later fixed ,but I wondered if you were trying to do a political version of rickrolling. Would we call that JamesKPolking?

(V) & (Z) answer: We never put up fake videos, featuring Rick Astley or otherwise. And while it would be hard to explain the nuts and bolts of why this is the case, it is an impossibility that we would accidentally link to a video from a previous day's posting.

Invariably, this problem is due to some sort of cacheing that some browsers do. So, if you click on the embedded video, you sometimes get a previous video we've embedded. That's why we always try to provide a direct link, as we did with the Biden speech. You can also clear your cache, which is shift-command-r on most Mac browsers and control-shift-r or shift-F5 on most Windows browsers.

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