The Gubernator's acrostic mischief

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Via The Swamp, the Chicago Tribune's political blog, comes news of an awesome (if spiteful) bit of gubernatorial wordplay from the office of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger:

San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano had sponsored a bill which passed unanimously granting the Port of San Francisco financial power to redevelop a former shipyard for a new neighborhood known as Pier 70.

Ammiano also had made something of a scene at a Democratic Party fundraiser early this month in San Francisco at which Schwarzenegger, a Republican, had been invited by former San Francisco mayor and Assembly speaker Willie Brown, a Democrat. This surprised many, in light of the heated budget wars between the governor and legislature.

Ammiano could be heard invoking the cry of Republican South Carolina's Rep. Joe Wilson at President Barack Obama's address to a joint session of Congress – "You lie" – as others heckled Schwarzenegger's brief speech. After the governor left, Ammiano took the stage with a rambling criticism of Schwarzenegger for a variety of offenses — among them the governor's vetoes of bills that would have legalized gay marriage.

When the governor's office delivered a veto-message for Ammiano's own port bill a few days later, on Oct. 12, there appeared to be an unmistakable hidden message within: Reading the first letter of each line of the letter's two main paragraphs:

"My goodness. What a coincidence," a shocked, shocked Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear is quoted by the Associated Press as saying. "I suppose when you do so many vetoes, something like this is bound to happen."

With some back-of-the-envelope calculations of probability, I'm sure we could set about refuting McLear's disingenuous response that the acrostic is merely a "coincidence." Scholars of Shakespeare have argued whether the following acrostic in A Midsummer's Night Dream, in which the character Titania spells out her own name, could have appeared by chance:

Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no,
I am a spirit of no common rate,
The summer till doth tend upon my state;
ANd I do love thee. Therefore go with me.
I'll give thee fairies to attend on thee;
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep…

But I think in this case it's pretty clear that we're dealing with intentionally mischievous acrostic-making in the Governor's office. It reads very smoothly, so kudos to the writer of the veto message. Could it have been Ahnold himself? Doubtful, although he might have told someone in his office to construct the acrostic. (I wonder if whoever did it also leaked the story to reveal his or her handiwork.)

Kudos too to Mark Silva of The Swamp, for coming up with a novel taboo avoidance strategy in his headline, "Schwarzenegger to foe: (Veto) 'you'."


  1. Bloix said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

    The tells are the two unnecessary's and the colloquial "kicks the can."

  2. Nathan Myers said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

    Vetoing unanimously passed bills over personal spite is a signifier of bad government. I'm not sure where the humor is. Is it under the P.J. O'Rourke variance, where petty nastiness qualifies as humor if the audience is unsympathetic toward its target?

  3. John said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

    Nathan, I don't think this is a veto – you can't veto something that was unanimously passed, at least at the federal level. I'd imagine that the state level would be the same way. When a bill is returned without a signature, as long as it's veto-proof, it'll get passed into law anyways. This is probably more of a statement than anything else.

  4. John said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

    Hmm, it seems that I'm wrong about that. The fact that you can veto a bill that was passed unanimously is stupid as hell.

  5. ray said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

    Fellas, it's called "checks and balances." Of course an executive can veto something that's been "unanimously" passed. What the executive risks, of course, is an override of that veto. But s/he can always override; that's the executive's job as a "check" on the legislative branch.

  6. Acilius said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

    @Nathan Myers: Why is it funny? All I can tell you is why I laughed when I first read it. I've most often encountered acrostics as commemorations of holidays. My experience of them may not be unrepresentative. A Google search for "Christmas acrostic" brings up over a million hits; and Americans of a certain age will remember hearing a song beginning "M is for the many things she gave me" every Mother's Day. So the message seemed to be a free-verse poem in celebration of Veto Day.

    FWIW, I'm not convinced that Schwartzenegger acted out of personal spite in this instance, any more than I am convinced that the unanimous support of the California State Assembly is a badge of honor. The governor is supposed to insist that the legislature resolve statewide issues and set overall fiscal policy before it moves on to local questions, even when that governor is for some unaccountable reason Arnold Schwartzenegger.

  7. Haamu said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 6:57 pm

    "My goodness. What a coincidence," a shocked, shocked Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear is quoted by the Associated Press as saying. "I suppose when you do so many vetoes, something like this is bound to happen."

    And if we had a chimp produce an infinite number of signing statements, I'm sure we'd find even more impressive literary works embedded therein.

    Hmmm… I wonder if there's any recent corpus that might provide a suitable test of this hypothesis?

  8. Nick Lamb said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

    Acilius, exactly – this is a sign of "bad government" only in the sense that Californians have set themselves up, paralysing their legislature with promise everything, do nothing types. I'm no fan of Schwartzenegger (in fact I can't think of a single actor turned politician I do like) but it must be very frustrating for him. If he vetoes a bill that actually fixes California's deficit, then Nathan can get back to us about "petty nastiness". But first they need to pass one.

  9. Forrest said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

    Bloix is right; the wording sounds a bit contrived on my second reading, after noticing the joke. The second unnecessary, making the u in you, is a give away. A better construction might have been "… I believe it would be unwise," although this is a bit longer. The writing would be much better without requiring a U- word, but, that would have ruined the joke.

    I found the joke funny, and at least mildly clever.

    And since the subject came up, a governor can sign, veto, or refuse to sign a bill that comes across his (or her – or their) desk. Refusing to sign a bill has the effect that the bill becomes law after X days, but gives the governor wiggle room to mis-state their record.

  10. The effin' bear said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 9:05 pm

    I wonder if whoever did it also leaked the story to reveal his or her handiwork.

    Either that or it was decrypted by a crack team of Harvard symbologists.

  11. Steve said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

    I figured I'd figure out the probability here, just for kicks.

  12. Faldone said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 9:43 pm

    All Things Considered had a story about this today. Their expert suggested that there was a 5.5 in a trillion chance that this was purely coincidental.

  13. fiddler said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 10:53 pm

    Maybe I'm just in a bad mood (I have yet another cold), but I don't think this is funny. Or mischievous. Or awesome.


  14. vic said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 11:30 pm

    I might consider it ingenious if the governor or his spokesman had the balls to admit that they had done it intentionally, but to claim coincidence lowers it to a childish prank.

  15. James said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 11:43 pm

    Huh, to my mind it becomes funnier when they deny it was intentional. I'm not exactly sure why. It has to do with the fact that the denial is so brazenly insincere.

  16. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

    @Ben: No kudos to Mark Silva of "The Swamp," who suppressed Ammiano's much more offensive language directed at Schwarzenegger.

    "Ammiano also had made something of a scene at a Democratic Party fundraiser…." But his yelling at Schwarzenegger "You lie!" is harmless. If "You lie!" is making "something of a scene," what are Ammiano's shouts at Schwarzenegger, "Kiss my ass!" and "Kiss my faggot ass!"?

    Quintin Mecke, Ammiano's Communications Director, claims that "The Member [!] did not use the term 'faggot' at any time in his comments towards the Governor" but said "You can kiss my gay ass."

    For documentation, Google and see .

  17. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 12:03 am

    For some unknown reason, LL's program cut my last paragraph:

    For documentation, Google ( ammiano +"kiss my faggot" ) and see .

  18. Paul said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 1:21 am

    So a rude humorless Assemblyman got his comeuppance. And it was done with a greater degree of civilization than his comment. Guess I don't have a problem with that. Possibly (but not probably) Mr. Ammiano will learn to keep his mouth shut if he wants his bills signed.

  19. J. Goard said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 1:23 am

    Sweet. Proud to be a Californian today.

    To the people claiming the veto was motivated by spite: doesn't it look like pure pork-barrel (directly benefitting the rich metropolitans) offered by a (ahem) vocal critic of the governor's approach to fixing the state budget? It's the content of the bill, plus the man, that makes the acrostic apropos.

  20. Ted McClure said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 9:17 am

    A possible explanation: A staffer put this together on his own initiative to lighten the boss's mood, never thinking it would ever be approved. The boss saw it, laughed, and sent it. This happened to me once as a speechwriter in the Pentagon: My general was going over to Capitol Hill to brief an important Congressman on our position on a recently published study. He was really upset about this, very tense. To lighten things up for him, my graphics guy put together a slide that described the institution that authored the study as "Raw Assertions No Data" on the background of a mattress. The general – who had a grand sense of humor – reviewed the slides for the first time on the ride to the Hill, and this one had the desired effect. Then he used it to start his presentation, something we had never anticipated. Reportedly, the Congressman laughed so hard he almost had a heart attack.

  21. Ed said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 11:31 am

    I'm not an expert on the California constitution, but most US state constitutions copy the federal constitution. The executive can veto anything. The legislature can override by taking another vote, with 2/3 of both house voting in favor, and then the legislation becomes law. This extends to the budget.

    I think few other countries have anything like this. Most have dispensed, formally or informally, with any sort of executive veto.

    Note that the framers of the US constitution did not anticipate political parties. An executive can veto a bill and have his party back him in the legislature, and they just need to have a third of the seats in one of the houses to have the veto upheld. I have the impression that the framers thought that the veto would be a less powerful tool for the executive than what actually turned out.

  22. fiddler said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 12:38 pm

    When my kids were in elementary school I volunteered with the school's quarterly "newspaper." The kids wrote all the pieces including news and games; parents did proofing and layout.

    Two enterprising 6th grade boys made up one of those puzzles where you have to find words on a grid and circle them. (I think it's called a Word Search.)

    About 5 hours after the newspaper was distributed, a second-grader noticed that the Word Search words were all profanity. The puzzle, along with everything else, had been read by 4 parents (one of them a professional editor), 2 teachers, and the principal, and nobody caught it.

    The boys were suspended for 2 days and had to write an apology. I, the professional editor, had to admire them, really, for their inventiveness and guts.

    Wonder where they're working today…

  23. Boris said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

    In my high school, the freshman class bought ad space in our (senior) yearbook and put in something that at first glance looked like a typical fairwell/congratulations thing, but if one read the first and last couple of letters of each line only, the message read "thanks for a year in hell".

  24. Ahruman said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

    I feel I must point out that Steve’s abovelinked probability analysis is deeply flawed, as is that of the cryptologist on NPR. The proper question is not the probability of “fuck you” appearing as an acrostic, but the probability of any pithy insult appearing. This will still be ridiculously unlikely, but not as ridiculously unlikely.

  25. ArthurDent said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    If you type the memo on MS Word using standard settings (Times New Roman 12 point) the acrostic shows up by itself, that is, without the need to add any extra line feeds. Part of the trick seems to have been the use of long words to start 3 of the 5 continuation lines ("Unnecessary" twice and "overwhemingly"). These words easily cause an automatic line feed with just minor textual tweaking, which is why the text does not feel contrived.

  26. Larry Goldsmith said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

    Today's San Francisco Chronicle has an appropriate editorial on this topic:

  27. Robert said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

    This reminds me of an acrostic produced using drop capitals by Top Gear presenter James May:

    He was sacked from the magazine for doing it.

  28. deadbeef said,

    October 30, 2009 @ 2:48 am

    (Apologies if this is a double post, but I couldn't tell if I couldn't see my comment because it needed to be approval or because the submit button does nothing without scripting enabled.)

    What's the probability of me winning the lottery? Less than being struck by lightning some time in my life. What's the probability of me not winning the lottery? Greater than never being struck by lighting. What's the chance of me drawing the losing sequence, 5-11-47-33-16? Same as drawing the winning sequence, less than being struck by lightning. What does this tell me about the intentions of the State of Massachusetts? Absolutely nothing. Or possibly that they intend to profit from my innumeracy or desperation.

    Now, let's say I have a business partner who ran a raffle for a local charity. And let's say I won first prize, a week-long trip to Hawaii. Could my friend have influenced the result? People would probably suspect he did, given his possible motives. Would it have looked an different if I had won by chance? Absolutely not. After all, somebody will win and there is no reason why my ticket should be any less likely than anybody else's. Unless he was careful or prevented my participation, as he should have.

    Certainly any reasonable person would think that "I Fuck You" is likely an intentional response to "kiss my gay ass." But having a (highly flawed) estimated probability of one in a billion or one in a trillion of appearing randomly does not prove or even suggest in the slightest that it was intentionally placed. At least you'd want to study the distribution of letters appearing in similar letters written the governor's other letters so you have an actual idea of what "one in a trillion" really means.

  29. J. Goard said,

    October 30, 2009 @ 3:24 am


    I would tend to disagree with your criticism, on the grounds that "fuck you" is independently significant, both in frequency (versus, e.g., "fag cunt") and in offensiveness (versus, e.g., "dumb guy"). If you asked people to think up seven-letter messages for someone they really dislike, I think it is quite likely to be at the top of the list.

  30. deadbeef said,

    October 30, 2009 @ 10:22 am

    Reading J. Goard's comment, I realize I missed something basic in my previous insomniac rambling. I think the right questions are, how many letters ever written have contained the acrostic "I Fuck You", and how many of those were written on purpose? Comparing the frequency of "I Fuck You" in letters with insulting acrostics to its frequency on the whole might be good too, though the interpretation is less straightforward, I think.

    I'm not a statistician, and this isn't a statistics blog, so maybe I should stop and ask a statistician what the right questions are. But I'm pretty sure that the reasoning that an outcome having a very small probability of occurring by chance implies a very high probability of occurring not by chance is wrong.

  31. David J Swift said,

    October 31, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

    Reminds me of jape a friend brought back from New Jersey:

    "I got two words for you: fuck you, you fuck."

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