Let me say publicly that DonBoy’s answer exudes a combination of intuitive genius and confidence that make me think DonBoy is going to do big things in his life. -- Steven D. Levitt (Freakonomics blog)
Monday, December 12, 2005
The Big Dog Does The Puzzle

Here's a story from Marc Romano's Crossworld, a book about crossword puzzles, the people who create them and/or solve them, and the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Romano is visiting Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times puzzle:
Hanging on the wall in the corridor between his study and office was a framed letter that I was surprised to see is from President Bill Clinton. It's a birthday greeting Clinton had sent two years before. As Will tells it, [his assistant] Helene Hovanec had asked the by then ex-president to come to Will's fiftieth birthday party; although Clinton begged off, he had sent this message instead. Given the Times's relentless pursuit of the Clintons from the Whitewater episode on, the text is actually pretty funny: The crossword puzzle, the president wrote, was about the only section of the paper he consistently enjoyed.

"There's a story behind that letter", Will said.

And a fairly remarkable tale, too. When Will was still at Games magazine just before taking over the editorship of the Times puzzle, his publisher -- a big Clinton supporter who eventually became finance chief of the then-governor's presidential campaign -- had set up a meeting among the candidate, the puzzlemaster, and now-Wall Street Journal crossword editor Mike Shenk, from whom Will had commissioned a puzzle they hoped the candidate would attempt. This was just after Clinton had won his party's nomination at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton was a bit suspicious about the whole thing -- it does seem odd for a politician and a crossword maven to meet in the heat of a presidential run -- and had made clear to Will and Mike Shenk that their time in his hotel room with him would likely be interrupted by all sorts of urgent phone calls, quick talks with campaign workers, and the like. The puzzle Shenk had brought along was a fifteen-by-fifteen clued to about the difficulty level of a Wednesday Times crossword.

Once Clinton saw that Will was in earnest, he agreed to doing the puzzle. He told an aide that only the most urgent calls were to be passed through, clicked the timer on his wristwatch, and set about solving Shenk's grid. Will fell silent, but Clinton said, "Go ahead: don't stop asking me questions," and he answered them as he filled in the puzzle. About three minutes into the proceedings, the phone rang; Clinton clicked off the timer and answered the call, which was long and involved. (Will later found out it was from the Reverend Jesse Jackson.) When he was done, he clicked on the timer again and finished the puzzle -- in six minutes fifty-four seconds. When the meeting was over, Will and Shenk looked at Clinton's answers. They were 100 percent correct; the ex-president would do well at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, if he can find the time for it given his busy schedule, and if the Secret Service don't take away everybody else's no. 2 pencils, just in case.

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