Lodestar

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Anonymous, "I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration", NYT 9/5/2018:

Subhed: I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.

The Times today is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.

The publication of this anonymous editorial has of course sparked speculation about the identity of its author. In particular, one strand of authorship-attribution discussion has focused on a single word, from the penultimate paragraph, suggesting that it's evidence for attributing the work to Mike Pence:

We may no longer have Senator McCain. But we will always have his example — a lodestar for restoring honor to public life and our national dialogue. Mr. Trump may fear such honorable men, but we should revere them.

This twitter thread seems to be the source of the "lodestar means Pence" speculation. Of course there's been some pushback, for example suggesting that we

Remember that some senior administration officials have been known to use the language often used by other officials in an effort to throw people off track.

Thus Jonathan Swan, "White House leakers leak about leaking", Axios 5/14/2018:

"To cover my tracks, I usually pay attention to other staffers' idioms and use that in my background quotes. That throws the scent off me," the current White House official added.

And another tweet pointed out that

"Lodestar" lost obscurity a few days ago.
Kissinger shined light on it.

Some other lexical features have also been highlighted, e.g. "first principles". I haven't seen anyone making the point that authorship attribution on the basis of one or two lexical features is going to be unreliable at best, but it's probably Out There. (And in dealing with national politicians and other high-status individuals in the modern world, authorship attribution also faces the problem that most of their "works" are actually written by flunkies…)

Meanwhile, it's interesting that in introducing the original op-ed and in the NYT's discussion of it, the paper goes out of its way to avoid gendered pronouns:

The unnamed official, whose identity is known to the Times editorial page department but not its news staff, described the president's leadership as "impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective" and cited "adults in the room" who strive to prevent disaster. At one point, the official wrote, there was talk of the cabinet invoking the 25th Amendment to declare Mr. Trump unable to discharge his duties, but no one wanted a constitutional crisis.

"We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous," the official wrote. "But we believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic."

"That is why many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump's more misguided impulses until he is out of office," the official added.

This has led to speculation about the possibility that e.g. Kellyanne Conway might be the author. But then there's this:

Update — Andy Borowitz, "Nation stunned that there is someone in the White House capable of writing an editorial", The New Yorker 9/5/2018:

Davis Logsdon, a professor of linguistics at the University of Minnesota, said that a team of language experts under his supervision has studied the Op-Ed word by word and is "in a state of disbelief" that someone currently working for Donald J. Trump could have written it.

"There are complete sentences, there are well-structured paragraphs, there is subject-verb agreement," he said. "This does not appear to be the work of any White House staffer we're familiar with."

Stressing that he and his team of linguists are "not even close" to determining the author, Logsdon said that they were currently using the process of elimination to whittle down the list of possible scribes.

"Based on the mastery of language that we see here, it's not Sarah Huckabee Sanders, John Kelly, Stephen Miller, or Kellyanne Conway, and it's definitely not Jared," he said.

Needless to say, "Davis Logsdon" does not actually exist. And Andy Borowitz is mean.

[See also "Lodestar 2", 9/6/2018]

 



25 Comments

  1. AG said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 10:25 pm

    Whoever supposedly wrote it, I'd guess that their own style is probably completely effaced because a speechwriter (or at least an underling who fancies themselves a speechwriter) edited this. There are too many clumsy orator/rhetorical techniques crammed into almost every sentence – alliterations, parallel phrases, lists of things, slightly old-fashioned words to give fake gravitas, and other tics which an actually busy official probably wouldn't have time to carefully cram into almost every phrase.

  2. jfruh said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 10:58 pm

    Re: the gender: Apparently the Times has said that "he" was inserted by the staffer who wrote the tweet, who does not actually know the gender of the person, erroneously.

  3. Saurs said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 3:06 am

    Mr. Trump, as one failing paper's style guide would have it, has met his Deep State, and apparently it's full of nice, white folk who, when not anonymous, profess the most centrist philosophy of all–Politics Without the Politics–and may sometimes, on rare occasion, even believe it behind closed doors. But not today*.

    *yesterday

  4. Elonkareon said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 3:23 am

    That's obvious a gender-neutral "he".

  5. Mark Meckes said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 5:43 am

    The Washington Post's story claims that "The outing of the op-ed's author is virtually inevitable, according to forensic linguists".

  6. Stephen Goranson said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 6:19 am

    And, a NYT editor may have suggested changes. That said, it sounds more like some suspects than others.

  7. Rube said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 7:16 am

    @Mark Meckes: I would be interested, sometime, to get a Language Log post on the subject of forensic linguists, and the reliability of their insights and testimony.

  8. Benjamin Ernest Orsatti said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 7:56 am

    If, as the article suggests, the "managing up" of the President has been a "team effort", I'd say the best way to have ensured anonymity would have been to have to have written the op-ed collaboratively; e.g., I write some stuff, pass it to someone else who edits my work and writes some more stuff, and that person passes it on, etc.

    Can forensic linguistics detect whether a text has been written by one author, or several? I know that it's done in, say, Biblical scholarship, but these would be people who would likely all be speaking the same register and variety of English, not, say, authors separated by hundreds of years.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 8:59 am

    In order to play this guessing game plausibly, one must first know what the plausible pool of "suspects" is and who's in it. Just how "senior" must an individual be within the executive branch to be truthfully described as a "senior official in the Trump administration"? Is that a pool of a dozen or twenty suspects, or of a hundred or two hundred? I think the latter is certainly possible without the NYT's use of "senior" being indefensible, although I also think the NYT probably doesn't mind if people leap to the uncertain conclusion that it's the former.

  10. Rube said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 9:27 am

    @J.W. Brewer: According to all-knowing Wikipedia:
    "The title senior administration official is a term used by the American press to indicate the identity of a source while retaining his or her anonymity. As the title is subjective, the reporter writing the article is allowed to decide if a source should be called one.Most reporters require the source to have "commissioned status". These include any Assistant to the President, Deputy Assistant to the President, and Special Assistant to the President (all of these people are members of the Executive Office of the President). However, senior administration officials almost always have the rank of Assistant. Other people that can be classified using this title include the Vice President and Cabinet secretaries (occasionally deputies and undersecretaries as well)."

    This indicates a pretty wide pool.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 10:29 am

    @Rube: Thanks. The wiki piece links in turn to a 2005 Slate "Explainer" article saying that the number of individuals who could be non-misleadingly given that label back then (according to the internal linguistic conventions of the White House press corps) "could number well over 100."

  12. Mike Gilbert-Koplow said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 10:31 am

    If Pence is the author (which I'm not convinced of), he's even more of a schemer than I gave him credit for.

  13. Ed said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 12:18 pm

    The letter may have been re-written by a staff writer or say Kelly Ans husband in an effort to hide the identity of the original author. The word load star may have intentionally been added.

  14. Stuart Luppescu said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 1:01 pm

    Some very impressive text analysis detailed here:
    http://varianceexplained.org/r/op-ed-text-analysis/
    with code, even, indicates that the writer was Mike Pompeo, or at least someone in the State Department.

  15. BZ said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 1:34 pm

    For some reason calling the vice president a "senior administration official" seems wrong, though if it were him, I don't know how else he would be anonymized, perhaps "a source close to the president" which is also common. "Senior administration official" suggests a cabinet position to me.

  16. Matt said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 2:11 pm

    "Lodestar" is a relatively common word in the legal profession, used to describe a method of calculating attorney's fees. The lodestar methodology is most commonly used by plaintiff's lawyers, but almost every lawyer is familiar with this terminology.

    Given the prevalence of lawyers or those familiar with legal terminology in the Administration, I'm not sure "lodestar" is the best word for narrowing down authorship of the op-ed.

  17. Sili said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 2:58 pm

    Calling the current VP "a source close to the president" seems rather a misnomer. He's done his best to keep out of sight while making himself the perfect cross between Garner and Agnew.

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 5:01 pm

    I don't know whether one would have thought of "current U.S. Ambassador to Russia" as a "senior official" in the "administration" even on a fairly broad-scope reading of "senior," but the holder of that very post has now found it necessary to deny speculation that he is the author and has apparently not phrased that denial with "come on, no one could think I'm a 'senior official.'"

    https://www.deseretnews.com/article/900030720/jon-huntsman-jr-denies-authoring-anonymous-new-york-times-op-ed-criticizing-trump.html

  19. David Marjanović said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 5:05 pm

    Can't be Pence, whose job isn't potentially threatened – he can be impeached, but he can't be fired! He's elected, not appointed by the president.

    Here's a non-linguistic argument for Mattis.

  20. ajay said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 4:56 am

    Can't be Pence, whose job isn't potentially threatened – he can be impeached, but he can't be fired! He's elected, not appointed by the president.

    He could, presumably, also be prosecuted; the much-discussed presidential immunity from prosecution doesn't extend to the VP. At least I would assume it doesn't.

  21. Shlomo Argamon said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 1:57 pm

    No competent analyses have yet been publicized, though many laughable ones have. The "smoking lexical item" analyses are not even the worst of them…

  22. Dr. Jerry Drawhorn said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 8:59 pm

    Usually lexical analysis involves using a large body of material (say a term paper) and contrasting it to a large pool of other material. Then a probability assessment is made from the pool. There are certain dangers in this. One is, of course, sample effects. If the pool contains two contemporary documents by individuals in the Court of Henry VIII (say Woolsley and Cromwell) and others written by Natural Historians of the 1800's the analysis will likely show that the letters are written by the same hand. Of course that would be simply because of the divergence of the pool from the language of that period in England.Many words that are archaisms in the 1800's would be widely commonplace in 1500. As well, topical similarities would produce matches.

    I'm not so convinced that the fact that the legal profession commonly uses "lodestar" indicates that it could be any lawyer in the WH. "Lodestar" is used very differently in this situation than the legal term. A lawyer would not necessarily jump to use the other, older, definition or even know it.

    It sometimes is used in religious texts, sermons, meditations and in literature. The former are likely where VP Mike Pence acquired the use of the term.

    However, in a very weird coincidence, it was the Merriam-Webster's "Word of the Week" for August 28, 2018 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lodestar and was used by John McCain III and in several eulogies relating to him.

    The Merriam-Webster link might suggest the writer simply came across the word there and integrated it into the op-ed by chance. There is no reference to any of Pence's speeches using the word in that MW posting, or in the "comments" section until after the op-ed was published.

    "First Principles" is also used in religious liturgies and tracts (such as in discussions of "Natural Law"), but also in Philosophy. It is usually contrasted with the lower "human created" or "man-made" law or behavior. The first is extrinsic to human creation (either God-created, for Aquinas; or through evolutionary or even physico-chemical processes…Herbert Spencer and perhaps Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Matt Ridley, Michael Ruse, Michael Shermer and Robert Wright). For the religious advocates of Natural Law God-created law is higher and superior to the man-made laws than can be opportunistic, restricted to a culture or time, or class.

    Thus this could be someone like Pence who would base his assertions of religious tenets, or perhaps Mattis, who is a big follower of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.

    Oddly, Ayn Rand and her protégés, argued that there were no God-given First Principles and this was simply a sham as coercive as the myth of Communism. In her objectivism the Fundamental Principle was "self-interest" über alles. It was a sort of amoralism wrought as a universal guiding principle.

    The author of the op-ed also mentions that he "work(s) for the President" and is amongst a group that are "appointees of the President". That might seem to point away from the VP…but then again it could be an intentional red-herring to draw attention AWAY from Pence. And if one stretches it…Trump was appointed to the VP nominee spot by Trump, wasn't he.

    And while Pence's "job" is not at risk….his "position" surely would be…he would be vilified, marginalized, and perhaps prosecuted (although it is hard to argue that an activity explicitly approved of by the 25th Amendment of the Constitution could be Treasonous).
    There are likely

  23. Dr. Jerry Drawhorn said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 9:14 pm

    I also wonder if someone would trust a speechwriter with the editing of the op-ed piece. That would open the door to revelation by an ambitious underling. Very dangerous.

    If Pence was revealed he would lose all the Trump supporters for any future Presidential run…even amongst evangelicals he would be viewed as a Judas. And he's be marginalized to a degree that no other VP ever has been. This would almost certainly happen even if they successfully initiated Article 4 of the 25th Amendment. I can't conceive that Congress, as currently instituted, could get 2/3rd's majorities in both Houses to prevent Trump from strolling right back into the Oval Office. And then Trump would really wreak havoc. THAT was the Constitutional crisis that prevented them from pulling the trigger.

    Now maybe Congress would finally grow some and prevent any new Cabinet appointments being extremist ideologues. They might handcuff his use of Executive Statements and diktats. Reign him in after he has gutted his own executive force. How much chaos this would cause economically, and politically is hard to estimate? Would he mobilize his believers to hit the streets and march on Congress? Try and martial the military or National guards to suppress demonstrations calling for his impeachment?

  24. Ray said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 8:20 am

    obviously, the editors of the nyt wrote the piece, and simply attributed it to "some insider who shall not be named." that no one is even considering this possibility — even humorously — is hilarious (or sad).

  25. Lewis Goudy said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 4:13 am

    "And [Pence would] be marginalized to a degree that no other VP ever has been."

    FDR scarcely saw HST during his last 82 days, and did not deign to return his calls.

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