Transcript

383:

Origin Story
Transcript

Originally aired 06.19.2009

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/383

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Pino Audia teaches in the business school at Dartmouth, and he researches, among other things, the question: How do entrepreneurs get created? And somebody noticed that his students and many of his colleagues actually have an opinion about this. They believe entrepreneurs make themselves. You know, you bravely head off on your own. You write a business plan. You start in your own garage. And that garage, by the way, is not a metaphor. Hewlett-Packard started in a garage. Apple Computer had a garage. Disney, the Mattel Toy Company, the Wham-O Toy Company.

Pino Audia

It is about big dreams and humble beginnings and success in the face of adversity and doubters, and also the idea that regardless of who you are, regardless of how humble your beginnings are, you can turn something into an immense success story if you work hard. And that was the point in time at which I got interested in the story of the garage as a myth.

Dan Heath

A garage is a place of possibilities. It's a place where things can get invented and a place where entrepreneurs begin.

Ira Glass

This is from a promotional video that Hewlett-Packard put together after it spent millions to buy and restore the original garage where its two founders started what is now the largest technology firm in the world.

Dan Heath

In 1938, in a garage in Palo Alto, California, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard set to work to start a new company. They had a few hand-operated punches, a used Sears Roebuck drill press that had just made the trip west in the back of one of their cars, and they had a rented flat with a garage.

Ira Glass

Professor Audia doesn't argue with any of this. But he says that when you ask actual entrepreneurs, and this is true in survey after survey, you find that most of them began not by going off into their garage, but by working for somebody else, making contacts, learning the business.

Pino Audia

So this is a very robust finding, which tells us that actually if you want to become an entrepreneur, the obvious thing to do is to first go get a job in an industry you're interested in and learn, and then eventually, later try to create a company.

Ira Glass

Even Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard weren't exactly outsiders. They studied electrical engineering at MIT and at Stanford. Packard had worked at General Electric. A former professor of theirs from Stanford gave them leads and hooked them up, for example, with a firm called Litton Engineering. He let them use equipment that they didn't own themselves yet. Just as, decades later, the founders of Apple Computer, 21-year-old Steve Jobs, was already working at Atari, and 25-year-old old Steve Wozniak was at Hewlett-Packard when they started Apple in Job's garage.

Pino Audia

And, for example, in the case of Steve Jobs, he benefited greatly from the support that he got from the Atari people, because they introduced him to investors.

Ira Glass

Pino Audia has tried to find mentions of garage entrepreneurs or anything like it in other countries and didn't come up with much. He says it seems to be a very American idea, very close to other American ideas about opportunity for everybody. The Apple and Hewlett-Packard garages have now become such a part of Silicon Valley myth that it's made other tech companies want their own stories like it.

Google, for example. They did not start in a garage. The founders began working on their search engine in 1996 when they were at Stanford. They didn't actually move into a garage until 1998. They already had investors, and they were just in the garage for five months. But in 2006, Google bought the garage as a company landmark.

Dan Heath

It's like, no one wants to hear the story of the rich, well-connected guys who meet up at the Marriott conference room to hatch a business plan. There's no romance in that.

Ira Glass

Dan Heath has written about these origin stories in Fast Company magazine. He says that one way to measure just how appealing these stories are is to count all the ones that get quoted widely, even though they aren't remotely true. For instance, when eBay began, a story circulated that its founder created the company so his fiancee could buy and collect Pez dispensers more easily. Not true. One of the creators of YouTube used to claim that the idea for the business came after a dinner party in 2005, where two of the company's masterminds, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, shot some video and then tried to post it online and found out just how hard that was back then.

Dan Heath

Now, that is, at a minimum, an exaggerated tale. In fact, there's a third founder of YouTube who claims the dinner party never happened. And Steve Chen later admitted in TIME Magazine that the dinner party was embellished to provide a better founding myth.

And I do want to say that while it feels like a little bit of a letdown to realize that this dinner party story is not the whole truth, I feel like it's a little bit unfair for us to expect more of them than the creation of YouTube. I mean, here's this incredible site, and in some sense, that's not enough for us. We want YouTube to have emerged from some kind of everyday experience. It's like it's not enough to have the value of their work. We also want there to be a really compelling story that started it.

Ira Glass

Now, in the article that you wrote for Fast Company, you point out that our attachment to these kinds of mythic creation stories is so strong that we have even exaggerated the Christopher Columbus story.

Dan Heath

Well, Christopher Columbus, as we all know, wanted to prove that he could reach India by sailing west. But no one believed his crazy theory that the Earth was round. And, in fact, his own sailors en route were terrified that they were about to fall over the edge of the Earth, and they almost mutinied.

So there's a guy named James Loewen, a professor at University of Vermont, who has pointed out that virtually every element of this story is false. That, in fact, we still don't really know where Christopher Columbus was going. There's a lot of disagreement among historians that even Columbus' best-known biographer isn't totally sure where he was headed. And furthermore, there was no element of is the Earth round or flat here. Most people at that time already knew that the Earth was round. The evidence was there for them to see. They noticed that, if another ship is receding into the horizon, their hull disappears first, and then the mast later, which implies that there's some kind of curvature in play.

And again, here's a guy who crossed an ocean and became one of the first Europeans to set foot on a new continent, and yet, we want more from this guy. We want him to be having hand-to-hand combat with his crew en route. We just crave the drama. We crave the obstacles.

Ira Glass

For today on our show: origin stories. We love them so much that sometimes it is hard not to make them up. And so today on our show, we bring you three origin stories, true ones. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Act One of our show today: Mad Man. Act Two: The Secret Life of Secrets. Act Three: Wait Wait-- Don't Film Me. Act Four: Bill Clinton's 7-Year-Old Brother. Stay with us.

Ira Glass

Act One. Well, this first story is about a fight over the origin of certain ideas, a fight over who really came up with those ideas. Sarah Koenig tells a story about her dad Julian.

Sarah Koenig

All my life, I've heard the hallmarks of my father's achievements.

Julian Koenig

I invented thumb wrestling.

Sarah Koenig

That was in 1936 when he was a counselor at Camp Greylock for boys. They already had arm wrestling for the boys and leg wrestling.

Julian Koenig

But we needed another wrestling, and I invented thumb wrestling with the same rules as a hockey puck face-off. One, two, three, go!

Sarah Koenig

It just came to you, like just a stroke? Oh, we should use our thumbs?

Julian Koenig

Yeah, it was just a devastating moment.

Sarah Koenig

The discoveries kept coming. Shrimp, for instance.

Julian Koenig

I wanted to popularize shrimp in America.

Sarah Koenig

In 1941, my father, a shrimp lover, was discouraged that there were only two places on Broadway in New York where you could get shrimp. So then in Biloxi, Mississippi-- and bear with me here, because this story barely makes any sense. So he's in Biloxi, on his way to Mexico with some buddies, and he sees this government boat about to go out to track the migratory path of shrimp. And he talks his way onto the boat by explaining that he loves shrimp apparently, and he goes out on this boat, and they find the shrimp breeding grounds or some such. The rest, of course, is history.

Julian Koenig

Then back in New York, I patrolled Broadway and [UNINTELLIGIBLE], asking for shrimp, shrimp, shrimp! More! And in this way, talking it up, I popularized shrimp. No question about it.

Sarah Koenig

That seems like really, really thin evidence that you popularized shrimp in New York.

Julian Koenig

Well, I'm not making any claim on the industry.

Sarah Koenig

My dad does make a claim on the word "character," that he came up with the idea to use it to mean a person of unusual or eccentric qualities.

Julian Koenig

You have a character in a play, of course, but it wasn't in common usage as he's a character.

Sarah Koenig

And what made you-- do you remember why you started using it?

Julian Koenig

I just shifted it, adopted it. Though Norman Mailer thinks that he developed it, I take precedence.

Sarah Koenig

According to my father, Norman Mailer also said he invented thumb wrestling. Mailer, who died in 2007, was a famous thumb wrestler, but not its inventor. Because as we now know, my dad invented it at Camp Greylock for boys. And that's the rub. You can't prove the origin of any of this stuff, and it's annoying when people like Norman Mailer take credit.

My dad would like people to recognize him for his contributions to shrimp and character and thumb wrestling. But he's not going to make a stink if they don't. His real legacy, though, in advertising, that's another story. That, he's willing to fight for, and he has been fighting for it for decades.

My father was a legendary copywriter. He wrote "Timex Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking." He named Earth Day "Earth Day." It falls on his birthday, April 22. Earth Day, birthday. So the idea came easily. The magazine Advertising Age made a list of the top 100 advertising campaigns of the 20th century. The Marlboro Man is on it and the Energizer Bunny, "Good to the Last Drop" from Maxwell House and the "Keep America Beautiful" crying Indian.

But the number-one ad, the top of the 100 list? "Think Small." That was Volkswagen's American campaign to sell the Beetle in 1959, and my father wrote it. A picture of a tiny car on a big, white page and some amused self-deprecating copy. That ad was followed by Lemon, another VW ad so iconic it made it onto the TV show Mad Men, the show set in 1960 about an ad agency that's slightly behind the times. In this scene, the agency's creative team contemplates the Lemon ad.

Draper

I don't know what I hate about it the most, the ad or the car.

Crane

You know, they did one last year, same kind of smirk. Remember "Think Small?" It was a half-page ad at a full-page buy. You could barely see the product.

Kinsey

I don't get it.

Sarah Koenig

At the time, these ads were revolutionary. "In the beginning, there was Volkswagen," another famous New York ad man wrote. "That was the day when the new advertising agency was really born."

Here's another scene from Mad Men when Don Draper, the agency's creative director, interviews some new talent. After he looks at their portfolio, he hands it back to them with this line.

Looks good. By the way, it has Julian Koenig's fingerprints all over it.

Sarah Koenig

It's Julian Koenig [PRONOUNCES KOENIG AS KAY-NIG] actually. My father. And what has irritated him for so long is not that he's not recognized for his talent. I mean, the people who write Mad Men clearly know who he is. It's that some of his best work has been claimed by someone else.

Julian Koenig

In my instance, the greatest predator of my work was my one-time partner George Lois, who is a most heralded and talented art director/designer, and his talent is only exceeded by his omnivorous ego. So where it once would've been accepted that the word would be "we" did it, regardless of who originated the work, the word "we" evaporated from George's vocabulary and it became "my."

Sarah Koenig

If you've heard of anyone in the advertising industry, it might be George Lois. He's well known for a lot of things, but maybe especially for his provocative and funny Esquire magazine covers from the 1960s, like the one of Muhammad Ali posing as Saint Sebastian. But before that, George Lois worked at Doyle Dane Bernbach, and so did my father. In 1960, they both left DDB and joined up with another guy, Fred Papert, to form their own upstart agency called PKL: Papert, Koenig and Lois.

George Lois wouldn't talk to me for this story. "I'm not going to get into a sophomoric [BLEEP] fight with a disgruntled ex-partner," he wrote in an email. I can't say I blame him. I've had mixed feelings about this fight. Of course I want to stick up for my father, take his side. But I've also thought there's something inherently undignified about the whole thing, like it's beneath my father to care whether or not George Lois is taking credit for this or that slogan from 1962, so I never really paid attention to the details. Until now. Lately, it's been coming up more, or at least more publicly, so I started asking questions.

According to my father, it all started with the Harvey Probber account. Harvey Probber made elegant modern furniture, and my dad says he came up with the ad, a beautiful chair with a matchbook under one leg, and the line: "If your Harvey Probber chair wobbles, straighten your floor," and a piece of copy that went with it that he thought was very good.

Julian Koenig

And a year or so later or a couple of years later, Ron Holland, a friend of mine, came running into my office to say, George is upstairs with a Japanese editorial writer. They're doing an interview with him, and he's claiming your Harvey Probber chair ad, that he wrote it.

So I called George down to my office and remonstrated-- that's what men do frequently-- with him. And he says, I never said that. I would never say that. And he went back to his office. And a little while later, Ron comes bursting into my office, saying, George said I told that son-of-a-gun where to get off.

Sarah Koenig

Meaning you. Meaning he had told you?

Julian Koenig

Yeah, told me where to get off. So that was really the start of it.

Sarah Koenig

In 1972, George Lois published a book, the first of many, about his career called George, Be Careful. In it, he describes going to the Harvey Probber furniture factory in Massachusetts with my dad.

"Each chair was placed on an electronic test platform to be sure it was absolutely level," Lois wrote. "'Got a book of matches?' I asked Julian, a heavy smoker. He handed me a matchbook, and I slid it under one leg of the chair on the test platform. 'I've got the ad,' I said. 'If your Harvey Probber chair is crooked, straighten your floor.' Julian scowled and shot back: 'Ass [BLEEP]! If your Harvey Probber chair wobbles, straighten your floor.' That was the way the ad ran, and that was the way we built the first red-hot creative agency."

Julian Koenig

And none of that ever happened, as described by George. He didn't ask me for a matchbook. He didn't slide it under the leg of a chair and say, I've got the ad. None of it is true.

Sarah Koenig

But his makes a better story.

Julian Koenig

His is a marvelous story. George is a talented storyteller with a vivid imagination. The only thing that could exceed it would be the truth.

Sarah Koenig

There were other instances also regarding ads that were groundbreaking for their time. A campaign for the New York Herald Tribune: "Who says a good newspaper has to be dull?" Some famous Xerox commercials showing a little girl operating a copy machine, and later, a chimpanzee doing it, ads several people who worked on the account have complained that George literally had nothing to do with.

Then there's the ad for Coldene cough medicine. The page is entirely black with just two quotes at different heights meant to show a couple talking in bed. "John, is that Billy coughing?" says the wife. "Get up and give him some Coldene," the husband replies.

In an interview 20 years later, George Lois said, "The idea for the ad hit me like a brainstorm. This was the first time there would be no copy, no package design, no trademark," he said. "It was really the beginning of a new creative revolution. It was one of those ads that made history, effectively." Again, my dad is adamant that the whole ad, copy and design were his.

There are many possibilities here of what's going on. George Lois could be lying. Or George Lois could have convinced himself in some way that what he's saying about all this stuff is true. Or my dad could be doing the same thing, remembering stuff that happened when it didn't happen. Or, I suppose, my dad could be lying. I'd worry about those latter options more if my father was the only one disputing George Lois' version of history. But he's not.

There's the photographer Carl Fischer, who worked with George Lois for more than 30 years and shot many of the most famous Esquire covers. Carl Fischer says George is taking credit for cover ideas and photographs that were Carl's and talked in detail about certain photo shoots, like about flying to Las Vegas to shoot the boxer Sonny Liston as Santa, and even placing the Santa cap on Liston's head. Or rushing Italian actress Virna Lisi into a photo shoot in New York for this famous cover where she's pretending to shave her face. But Fischer says George wasn't there for either shoot. In fact, the Lisi shoot happened in Rome, and he still has the receipts to prove it.

And then there's Shelly Zalaznick, the first editor of New York magazine. George once told a reporter, quote: "My hand on the Bible, I, George Lois, created New York magazine." Mr. Zalaznick says that's simply not true. He himself remembers making the first dummy front page one hot August night in 1963. Not only that, he's never met George Lois.

As for George's version, he told me, I'm a loss. I don't know why grownups do things like this.

But the story my father objects to the most isn't about ad copy at all. It's personal. Papert, Koenig and Lois had gotten the Dutch Masters cigar account, and their TV spokesman at the time was this famous comedian Ernie Kovacs. So my dad flew out to LA to meet him, and they hit it off.

Julian Koenig

And Ernie and I spent the day together, driving around and lunched together, ended the afternoon in the lobby of the hotel I was staying in at the Beverly Hilton. He was not allowed past the lobby because he had short pants on. And then he went off to go to a party that night. And on his way home, it began to rain. His car skidded and went into a pole, and Ernie killed himself. I was on a plane back to New York and learned about it the next morning. So, unfortunate incident, but certainly memorable to me. And lo and behold--

Sarah Koenig

Lo and behold, in his 2005 book $elebrities, which is spelled with a dollar sign instead of a "C" at the beginning, George tells the story of his lovely lunch with Ernie, his car ride to the airport with Ernie, his red-eye flight back to New York, and his learning the following morning from a stack of still-bound newspapers that Ernie had been killed in a car crash.

My father has tried to fight back, aggressively at times. For instance, after the Ernie Kovacs story appeared in $elebrities, my dad retaliated in the medium he knows best. He wrote an ad.

Julian Koenig

I wrote an ad: "Low, Lower, Lois."

Sarah Koenig

That's Lois, L-O-I-S.

Julian Koenig

And I wanted to print it in the New York Times and say: "A book review. A public service book review."

Sarah Koenig

The Times didn't run it, but it did run in Adweek, though toward the back of the magazine, and it got no response.

Over the years, he and some of his former colleagues have written to reporters at the New York Times and other places trying to correct the record, but their letters have mostly been ignored. Just last year, a Times story about an exhibit of George Lois' Esquire covers credited him in the very first paragraph with "Think Small," the Xerox ads with the chimp, and a couple of other campaigns people say George either didn't originate or didn't even work on. Finally, the Times printed a short correction, giving "Think Small" back to my dad, but it was a small victory three weeks after the fact.

In the mid '80s, my dad wrote a letter to George directly, threatening to sue, it seems, and received a letter back calling him a sad, tortured and tragic figure.

All in all, my father's efforts haven't really done the damage he's hoped or really any damage at all. He's an indignant Basset Hound, nipping at the heels of the media's Great Dane. George Lois is a good talker with an engaging personality, and he's become something of a spokesman for the advertising industry. There are quotes in the newspaper and magazine profiles, exhibits, books. Errors printed once are repeated and repeated. So if you look up "Think Small" on the internet, for instance, you'll find it attributed to Julian Koenig, but you're also likely to learn that George Lois wrote it.

Fred Papert

I like the way he took credit for accounts he never had anything to do with, because that made it almost comical. All the Xerox stuff, Xerox stuff in the account that I got, was done by Sam Scali and I think Mike Chappell, and George at the end started taking credit for that, too.

Sarah Koenig

That's Fred Papert, the P of PKL. He was the guy who recruited Lois and Koenig to make a new agency in 1960. Now he's one of the guys responsible for redeveloping Times Square as president of the 42nd Street Development Corporation. He knows the stories all too well: Xerox, Harvey Probber, Coldene, Ernie Kovacs even.

Fred Papert

It's nuts. I think he's really got a screw loose. I think George truly doesn't know what he's doing. But it's nutty on both sides.

Sarah Koenig

Fred's in my dad's camp insofar as he knows and believes my dad is telling the truth. But his support more or less stops there. And he's categorical on this point, that my dad is himself acting like a nut, wasting his time. They've talked about this on rides to and from the racetrack.

Fred Papert

The reason that Julian should not be fussing about this stuff at this stage is A, nobody gives a [BLEEP]. B, anybody that would give a [BLEEP] knows already what it's about because this is what George does. It's George's thing. They've just got to put a lid on it.

But I've had this conversation with him 100 times, and he gets really pissed off, so I know he's got a screw loose, too. Your father can be a pain in the ass, you know. And even be testy if you say to him, Julian, [BLEEP] off already. We've heard this story, and we know about the wobbling chair or the wobbling floor. I've forgotten which one. You have no idea how many letters we wrote to the New York Times, to Advertising Age, to this and that. This is a dialogue between old farts.

Julian's in another world from these kinds of things. Julian is one of the great thinkers and creators in the advertising business. If some nutcase claims credit, who cares? And he doesn't even really like me very much. You have to understand that that's where we start. Well, it's true. I think he goes to the races with me because I have a car.

Sarah Koenig

My father recognizes that there are only about four people left on Earth who care about this stuff. It's just that he happens to be one of them, and he cannot let it go.

Julian Koenig

I assume if I had a different personality, I would I say I know what I've done. And those dear and near to me know what I have done or not done, and I'm OK with that. But I'm a fallible fellow, obviously with ego of his own, and I resent being burgled.

Sarah Koenig

The odd thing about all this, as my older brother John points out, is that my father has never exactly been a champion of advertising.

John Koenig

And he never believed he didn't have a-- he wasn't a true believer in the business. I mean, I remember him saying to me as a kid, you know, if you don't find something you want to do and really work at it, you're going to end up like me: a writer of short sentences. That's verbatim. And so, it's a little ironic, you know? Because he didn't care. That's the thing, Sarah. You know, all those years he didn't care, because I think he thought it was beneath him. And the business in some ways was not beneath him but was not serious enough to care that much about. And now he does.

Sarah Koenig

I understand why he cares. He's 88 years old now, so his legacy, understandably, is on his mind. And even though he did campaigns for all sorts of good causes-- gun control, nuclear proliferation, Robert Kennedy's senatorial and presidential campaigns-- my father's not quite satisfied with his life's work.

Julian Koenig

Advertising is built on puffery, and, at heart, deception, and I don't think anybody can go proudly into the next world with a career built on deception, even though no matter how well they do it.

Sarah Koenig

You're not necessarily proud that you had a career in the field of advertising and that's your legacy, but you are proud that you were the best in the business at the thing you chose to do.

Julian Koenig

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Sarah Koenig

If he could go back, choose another career, my father would have liked to have been an environmentalist of some kind, which is why he'd really like to be remembered for something almost nobody knows he did: naming Earth Day. It agitated him to look up Earth Day on Wikipedia recently and not see his name anywhere. So a few days ago, I added it.

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig is one of the producers of our program.

Coming up, a dead man's kid versus the US Supreme Court. That's in a minute. Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, we choose a theme and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show: origin stories, where we go back to figure out where things came from.

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, The Secret Life of Secrets.

This week, when the Attorney General appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he told them that any day now, he'll be delivering the Administration take on how to change the state secrets privilege. And I don't know about you, but for me, every time this comes up in the news, I have to be reminded what the hell the state secrets privilege actually is in the first place. And every time I read about it and relearn it, I think to myself, oh, right. That's one of those legal things that anybody can understand.

Basically, it's this: If you are suing the US Government, the Government can claim that taking your case to court would reveal sensitive national security information. If they do that, simply by making that claim, they can get your case thrown out of court. The judge won't even usually look at the evidence to see if the Government is fibbing.

Democrat and Republican presidents have both used this to get all kinds of cases dismissed. Under the Bush administration, this increased dramatically. They got judges to throw out lawsuits regarding the torture and rendition of detainees in the War on Terror, over Guantanamo, over the wiretapping of American citizens.

Barry Siegel

Yeah, well, the state secrets privilege came about as a result of a 1953 Supreme Court decision, US v. Reynolds.

Ira Glass

This is Barry Siegel, a reporter who wrote about the true story of US v. Reynolds for the LA Times and later in a book called Claim of Privilege. It is very possible that if we could somehow send his book back in time to the year 1953 and let the Supreme Court justices read what really happened in US v. Reynolds, they would have decided the case differently. Some important facts have come to light in the last half century about the case.

As a public service right now, in case any of you hearing my voice do someday get teleported back to the year 1953, we present now the true origin of US v. Reynolds.

Barry Siegel

A US Air Force B-29 in October 1948 took off in Georgia to test an experimental navigation system, radar system. Three civilian engineers from RCA were onboard as part of the test team. The plane engines caught fire. The plane crashed over Waycross, Georgia, October 6, 1948.

The widows of the three civilian engineers onboard sued the Government: negligence. During discovery process, the widows asked for the Air Force accident report. The Government wouldn't turn it over, wouldn't turn over the accident report. A Federal District judge, a very brave one, William Kirkpatrick, who was hearing the case, ordered the Government to produce the document. He said you can just turn it over to me in private. I'll look at it in chambers. The Government wouldn't hand it over even to the judge to look at in private in chambers.

Ira Glass

Because the Government would not comply with his order to turn over the accident report, the judge declares the widows the winners in this case by default. An appeals court agrees. It gets to the Supreme Court, whose decision you already know. It overturns the lower two courts, finds in favor of the Government, says the Government does not have to hand over the accident report once it claims that this would reveal state secrets.

But understand what happens next. There's an important thing you need to keep in mind about this Supreme Court decision.

Barry Siegel

Keep in mind, in 1953, the Supreme Court in ruling for the Government never itself asked to see the accident report. It voted in 1953 to believe the Government when it said it contained state secrets. And that's the foundation for the whole state secrets privilege in US v. Reynolds. It says that we have to trust the Government. If they can convince us that national security is at risk, then you don't have to even ask for the documents. So they never saw it. No one ever saw the accident report back then.

So 50 years passed. The families of these three civilians who had perished in the plane, they tried for years to find out more of what happened on that plane. They never could. The children of the engineers, who really never knew their fathers, always wondered who they were and what had happened to them. One of them particularly, Judy Loether, she was seven weeks old when her father Al Palya died.

Judy Loether

I knew my father had died in a plane crash, and I knew it was an Air Force plane, and I knew that there was a secret project.

Ira Glass

This is Judy Loether. Now, of course, she's grown. She lives in a town not far from Boston.

Judy Loether

The biggest question I had was what secret project were they doing on that plane? I mean, you know, what did my father die for?

Ira Glass

Over the years, she'd go into little spurts of looking into this. She exchanged letters with a man who had survived the crash. She went through her father's old papers and technical manuals. And then in the late 1990s, she got a computer and started searching the internet. She learned all about B-29s and about the bomb site device that her dad worked on as an engineer. It made her feel closer to him to see pictures of these things that he had made. She printed stuff out. She kept it in a notebook. And then one night in February 2000, she sat down at a computer.

Judy Loether

And again, my cursor was on that blank box. And I said, well, what do I want to look up tonight? And for the first time, I typed in the combination of B-29 plus accident, and I had never done that before. And the first hit was accidentreport.com. And this page comes up. Accident reports from military crashes from 1918 through 1955.

Ira Glass

All of these reports had been declassified in the 1990s.

Judy Loether

And I remember looking at those words and reading them like three times and thinking 1948. Wow! This place is going to have the report of that plane crash?

Ira Glass

Now, at the time, did you know that this report had been the subject of a lawsuit and that the Government refused to give your mom and the other widows this very accident report that suddenly you're actually able to get from this guy for $60-something?

Judy Loether

I hadn't a clue. I knew there had been a lawsuit, but that's all I knew.

Ira Glass

And did you know that the lawsuit turned into this famous Supreme Court precedent?

Judy Loether

No. I had no idea.

Barry Siegel

Two weeks later, Judy Loether gets mail from him, this accident report that her mom and the other widows had vainly sought 50 years before. And what's interesting about this is that she's kind of disappointed when she pulls out the accident report because she's not looking for the cause of the accident. What she really wants to know is what the secret thing was that her dad was doing on that plane. It was just a way to get to know about her dad. And to her great frustration, when she pulls out the accident report and reads it is that there's no reference at all to the secret project her father was working on.

Judy Loether

There was nothing in there about the secret equipment or the secret mission of the plane other than the mention that there was secret equipment on the plane. And that, of course, was in the newspapers.

Ira Glass

Instead of that stuff, what was in the accident report was a stark, very detailed account of Air Force negligence. There was a lot of negligence. This particular B-29 had a history of trouble: fuel leaks, faulty engines. It had been repeatedly grounded. The engines on all B-29s had a tendency to overheat and were supposed to get special heat shields installed to fix that, but this plane never got them. On this flight, the engines caught fire, and the pilot made some errors that compounded that problem and sent the plane into a spin.

Disturbed and saddened, Judy thought that she should share this document with other families from the crash, and from newspaper clippings, she learned of another woman whose father died that day: Susan Brauner. When she met Brauner, it was Brauner who told her about the Supreme Court decision.

Judy Loether

Within a half an hour of when I got home, I was reading that decision. And it was that moment, as I'm reading through the decision and it's all hinging on this accident report which I have, and I'm reading it, and the justices are saying in their decision it's a reasonable assumption that this accident report talks about the secret equipment and the secret mission, and I'm saying no. No, it doesn't talk about that at all. I couldn't understand it. It just really upset me. And then I think the fact that Reynolds was being used over and over again by the Government, it was such an important case, and it was based on this lie.

Ira Glass

In his reporting, Barry Siegel lists some of the other kinds of cases that have fallen under the state secrets privilege since this precedent was set. "In 1990," he writes, "families of 37 crew members who were killed by Iraqi missiles hitting the USS Stark sued the contractors responsible for the ship's antimissile system. The Government said trying the case would reveal state secrets, and this got it thrown out of court.

In 2000, a CIA employee sued the agency for gender discrimination. The Government said trying the case would reveal state secrets, and this got it thrown out of court.

In 2003, a senior engineer said a Defense contractor had submitted false test results on an antimissile vehicle. The Government said trying this case would reveal state secrets and got that thrown out of court."

And so, Siegel says, "Its disturbing that in the case that made all this possible-- US v. Reynolds-- the Government said that it couldn't turn over an accident report because this would reveal state secrets. But there seemed to be no state secrets at all in the accident report. At that point, it wasn't even a secret that B-29s were having these terrible mechanical problems.

Barry Siegel

It's really interesting, US v. Reynolds based on a lie. The very case that establishes the right of the state secrets privilege is a perfect example of why the Government shouldn't have that privilege.

Ira Glass

As for Judy, the more she thought about it, the more she was bothered by the fact that the Government's lawyers back in the 1950s must have read the accident report themselves, so they must have known that the Air Force was negligent. But when the lower courts found them negligent and awarded the widows some money, these Government lawyers kept appealing that decision, all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Judy Loether

That again is disturbing to me, because it's not like they were some corporation. These were three widows whose husbands were dead because of their negligence, but they were going to get their precedent at our cost.

Ira Glass

So Judy and two other families from the crash went back to the Philadelphia law firm that had originally represented her mom and the other widows back in 1953. And together, they filed a new petition in the Supreme Court. Not asking that US v. Reynolds cease to be a precedent. Too many other cases had agreed with the finding in Reynolds that that wasn't really an option. And the goal wasn't to overturn the state secrets privilege. Instead, they wanted the court to acknowledge that the Government had lied about the contents of the accident report, that the Government had committed fraud before the Supreme Court, and they wanted the court to award monetary damages that should have gone to the widows back then.

Barry Siegel

This gets a little technical into the legal, but the Supreme Court invited the Solicitor General--

Ira Glass

The Solicitor General, of course, the administration's lawyer who deals with the Supreme Court.

Barry Siegel

--to respond to this petition. And the Solicitor General's argument essentially said we are not in a position now, us sitting here 50 years later, to know why the Air Force made a state secrets claim. We're not experts, and we can't know what their reasons were 50 years before.

Ira Glass

The Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Ira Glass

So even though the Supreme Court refused to take this case, can their petition have an effect on the law in some way? Can it be cited? Has it been cited?

Barry Siegel

Yes. That's exactly what their legacy is. I think that they didn't prevail in the Supreme Court. They prevailed in the two ways that they probably most were seeking some effect. First of all, they sure got their story out. And the other thing that they did is that lawyers now involved in litigation with the Government have started to talk about the origins of the US v. Reynolds decision. Now when the Government waives the state secrets flag in court, the other side can get up and say, well, wait a second. And it has happened.

I can tell you there was a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, which finally-- one of the few rare ones, which did limit a Government state secrets claim.

Ira Glass

The court said, in this case, that they wouldn't just take the Government's word about whether there were secrets in the documents being discussed. The Government would have to show the documents to the judges, one by one, in private.

Barry Siegel

In this decision in the Ninth Circuit, which just came out in the last few weeks, there was a footnote in which these appellate judges cited what you and I are talking about today. They cited the fact that US v. Reynolds-- it said the dubious origins of US v. Reynolds.

Ira Glass

In 2008, Judy Loether testified before Congress. And when Senators Edward Kennedy and then Republican Arlen Specter introduced a bill to regulate the state secrets privilege once and for all, a bill that would tell judges not just to take the Government's word when it claims that a state secret is involved in the case, but actually look at the evidence to be sure that it's true, they cited what happened in Reynolds.

This is from the press release, quote: "Recently declassified information about the Supreme Court's leading decision on the state secrets privilege-- US v. Reynolds-- provides an early example of executive abuse of the privilege. That kind of abuse will no longer be possible under the State Secrets Protection Act."

A version of the bill came out of a House subcommittee this week. The bill's on the schedule to be marked up next week by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

[MUSIC - "FRIENDS AND ANCESTORS" BY NEDELLE]

Ira Glass

Act Three. Wait Wait-- Don't Film Me.

Now, this origin story. Our colleague at WBEZ and the host of the public radio show Wait Wait-- Don't Tell Me!, Mr. Peter Sagal, used to be a playwright. And to give you a sense of the kind of work that he did as a playwright, his most successful play, he says, was about a Holocaust denier and the Jewish attorney who represented that Holocaust denier in court.

Peter Sagal

And so it was all intellectual arguments and drama and involved the Holocaust and questions of the First Amendment law. And it came to the attention of this producer Lawrence Bender, who is most well known for being Quentin Tarantino's producer. So he produced, among many other movies, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and so on and so forth.

Ira Glass

Back in the '90s when all this happened, Bender read Peter's play and liked it and called him up and asked Peter if he wanted to write a movie. And Peter basically had been waiting for this phone call from Hollywood forever.

Peter Sagal

I mean, I think in the year 1992, my annual income was $10,000. Yeah, this was the phone call that you wait for.

Ira Glass

So after tossing around some different ideas for this film, Lawrence Bender introduces Peter to this woman who he works with, who at 15 had been an American in Cuba when the Cuban Revolution happened. Maybe there's a film in that. So Peter starts writing this film that's half romance, growing-up film, half politics about an American teenage girl in Cuba in the '50s.

Peter Sagal

And I had no-- I didn't know anything about the Cuban Revolution. But one of the things I found out was that everybody involved with it was incredibly young. Castro himself was only 29. They were all 17, 18, 19, 20 years old, these guys up in the mountains with him. And one of the things that actually happened was almost as soon as they took over, the Cuban Revolution, these wonderful young Democrats, freedom-loving rebels from the mountains, started executing people on television.

And in my original conception, there were two parallel stories. There was Maria, who I called the central character, who had a rebellious-- more typically adolescent rebellion going against her own parents. And then there was her romantic interest, a character named Josefo, who was a Cuban and was sort of a third-column rebel underground guy, living and working in Havana to undermine the regime, sometimes through violence.

Ira Glass

And eventually this film did get made and--

Peter Sagal

It did.

Ira Glass

It did. It finally got made a bit later, and I'm just going to play a clip here from it.

Katey Miller

Oh God! I love dancing with him.

Jeannie Miller

Did it ever occur to you that that boy might be using you? A nice American girl--

Katey Miller

No.

Jeannie Miller

-- who can be his ticket out.

Katey Miller

Please, no. That's not true.

Jeannie Miller

You may love dancing with that boy, but there are more important factors here like your family and your future!

Katey Miller

Why does it have to be either/or? Just because you gave up your passion, why should I? [SLAP]

Ira Glass

So that's a clip from the film. You want to just let people know the title of the film?

Peter Sagal

The title of the film is Dirty Dancing 2-- colon-- Havana Nights.

Ira Glass

Now, I have to say, I watched the movie last night. I watched Dirty Dancing 2--

Peter Sagal

The whole thing?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Peter Sagal

There is not a single line of dialogue in that movie that I wrote.

Ira Glass

So how does a film go from political coming-of-age drama to Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights? Well, of course, it's an old Hollywood story. Peter writes his film. He turns it in. They ask him to make it more like-- oh, maybe could it be more like Dirty Dancing? Innocent girl with a semi-dangerous guy?

Peter Sagal

And sometimes I think back on the experience, and I say, you know, I should have said to them, hey, if that's what you want, I'm really not the guy for it.

Ira Glass

He says each draft got worse and worse. Even he didn't like it. Finally, it was shelved. Years later, the producer who actually owned the rights to the film Dirty Dancing teamed up with Lawrence Bender to make a sequel, and somebody thought of Peter's old script. All the politics of the film got reduced to this one moment where, really, unconnected to anything else in the film, somebody attempts to shoot some unidentified political figure at the climax of the dance contest. And then later in a moment of obligatory foreshadowing, our couple talks about whether Castro would ever kick out Americans from Cuba.

Javier Suarez

I'm just saying that--

Katey Miller

What? that I might have to leave?

Javier Suarez

Could happen.

Katey Miller

But they wouldn't do that. Not if the whole idea is to give people their freedom.

Ira Glass

Can I ask you what it was like for you to watch the film? For you to sit in a theater and watch the film?

Peter Sagal

It was fine. It was really fine. Because--

Ira Glass

Oh, honey.

Peter Sagal

No, no, no. I mean this. Let me put it this way. Before I got that call, this experience had been a failure. I mean, I remember at that time just lying in bed, going, well, I had my shot and I blew it. All I ever wanted was a shot. I got my shot and it failed. I did a bad job. And so then when I got the phone call, it's like, oh, it's going to be made, and it's going to be Dirty Dancing 2. That's a happy ending. That's a much better ending than the ending I thought I had, which was that it was just a disaster.

Ira Glass

Act Four. Bill Clinton's 7-Year-Old Brother.

Reporter Mary Wiltenburg is in the middle of this yearlong series that she's writing for The Christian Science Monitor about two boys, brothers who were born in a Tanzanian refugee camp and then resettled in Georgia two and a half years ago. Many of her stories are focused on the older brother, nine-year-old Bill Clinton Hadam. His dad is a big fan of the former president.

After a tough first year in the United States, Bill seems to have settled in now, but his little brother Igey is still struggling to understand his own origin story to get his seven-year-old brain around who he is and where he came from. At this point, Mary has spent so much time with these two boys that she is more than a reporter. She's like a member of the family. Here's Mary.

Mary Wiltenburg

Igey calls me on the phone almost every day. Sometimes he leaves messages.

Woman's Recorded Voice

First unheard message.

Igey

Hello, Mary. This is me, Igey, and [UNINTELLIGIBLE] says Bill is going to summer school and I'm not going to summer school. OK, this is me, Igey. OK, bye!

Mary Wiltenburg

In between the messages, we have long chats. I tape most of our conversations because I'm writing these articles about him and his family. And the conversations always seem to start with one of two questions: When can I come to your house? Or when are you coming to my house?

Mary Wiltenburg

Hello.

Igey

Mary? You almost here?

Mary Wiltenburg

Oh, I'm going to be there soon. I'm in the car right now, driving to you, and there's a little bit of traffic.

Igey

You're driving now?

Mary Wiltenburg

I'm driving right now.

Igey

You're coming to take us, though, right?

Mary Wiltenburg

I am, yes.

So you know I'm crazy about this kid. He's sweet, nosy, funny. He's been to my house a bunch since I started doing these stories. But the first time he came over, six months ago, he announced to me and my husband and his brother Bill Clinton that from now on, the first grader, formerly known as Igey, would be going by his middle name: John.

I'd already known something was up, because that afternoon my husband took Igey to the park. Igey was up on the jungle gym when a girl about the same age called over from the swing set and asked his name, and he got all weird and wouldn't answer her. She thought he hadn't heard her, so she hopped off the swing, came over to the jungle gym, and asked him again, What's your name? Igey got this kind of cornered look and said, I don't know my name. But by later that night, he seemed to have made a decision. He was now John.

In our living room, he struggled to type his new name into a video game. J- O- wait, was it J? Or G? Then Bill offered to help. Igey said, I know how to spell my own name.

Igey picked up English first and best of anyone in his family. But his teachers say Igey's more confused about where he's from and who he is than other seven-year-olds they've seen. And the charter school Igey and Bill attend is about half refugees, so you think they'd see a lot of this. Teachers say no. Little kids usually realize pretty fast that most people who ask where are you from, they don't want the whole story. And it doesn't really matter if you say you're from Burma, where your parents were from, or Thailand, where you lived in a camp. In first grade, you just pick one and get on with your day.

But for Igey, where are you from has never felt that simple. All winter he seemed to be revising his story. First he denied the camp he'd lived in his whole life, hated the word "refugee." Then he started saying he wasn't from Congo, his nationality, or Tanzania, where he was born, or Africa at all. He'd say, I'm from here, or, America.

Watching TV, he'd point to rich, white kids and say, That's me. At home, he threw tantrums. At school, he sometimes seemed almost catatonic. He wouldn't answer questions, wouldn't meet people's eyes. His parents, his teachers, everyone felt helpless. They didn't know what set him off or how to reach him. And he seemed to regress. If you were sitting on the couch, he'd snuggle up or take my hand. The slightest things made him cry. He seemed lost.

One night on the phone, I reminded him where he was born: in Tanzania. I'm from Tanzania?, he said.

Igey

I'm from Tanzania?

Mary Wiltenburg

Uh-huh.

Igey

I am?

Mary Wiltenburg

Well, that's where you were born.

Igey

Yeah, but where am I from?

Mary Wiltenburg

Well, you were born in Tanzania. And your dad came from Congo.

Igey

He did?

Mary Wiltenburg

And your mom came from Rwanda. So your family has a lot of places where you're from.

Igey

'kay. Bye.

Mary Wiltenburg

Bye!

Igey's parents didn't mind calling him John. They were just kind of puzzled. The idea that you could hate your name seemed like one more baffling thing about America. They just had no idea what Igey was going through, and it made Igey feel more distant from them.

A while back, I was riding with Igey and his parents in their car when he said to me, I don't want to live with my mom. I thought it was a setup for one of his jokes, so I said, You don't want to live with your mom? Why? He said, I want to live with you. I said, No, you don't want to live with me. But then Igey got all serious and said, But what if I forget my language? I said, What do you mean? And he said, If I forget my language, I can't live with them, because they won't understand me.

Later on the phone, we talked about what it's like for him talking with his mom.

Mary Wiltenburg

When you speak English, does she understand you?

Igey

No.

Mary Wiltenburg

So maybe you're learning faster, huh?

Igey

I just forget it right now.

Mary Wiltenburg

Swahili?

Igey

Yes.

Mary Wiltenburg

Like what do you forget?

Igey

Everything.

Mary Wiltenburg

And then at some point this spring, Igey just went back to being Igey. A lot of things happened for him at once. His green card arrived. His reading took off. It took me a while to notice that John had vanished.

His teachers don't remember either exactly when he stopped correcting them. But by the last month of school, he was taking his turn in the semicircle with everyone else. No drama, just my name is Igey and I'm from Congo. And suddenly, he was volunteering details about his life in the camp: games he played, his mud brick house. Igey seemed to be making peace with his past and his name, and he moved on to other burning seven-year-old questions.

Igey

What's bingo nights mean?

Mary Wiltenburg

You know how you play bingo at school?

Igey

Yeah.

Mary Wiltenburg

It's like a night when a bunch of adults get together, maybe kids, too, and they play a game that's like that, only with numbers instead of words.

Igey

OK, I'm ready for you.

Mary Wiltenburg

Oh, OK. I'll see you soon.

Igey

'kay, bye.

Mary Wiltenburg

Bye.

And just when it seemed like Igey had finally accepted his own name, the other shoe dropped. The last week of school, Igey asked me, um, what does gay mean? I told him gay can mean happy, or it can mean when a man loves another man.

Igey started sobbing. We were in his kitchen, and he just collapsed against the fridge. Finally, he choked out what was wrong, and it turned out that some second graders had been taunting him: Igey, you're gay. And he told them, that's not a word. It's just one more strike against that name. But for now, John hasn't reappeared. Igey's sticking with Igey.

The other day, when we were riding in the car, I said some offhand thing about needing to call my mom. Igey said, You have a mom? I said, Yeah, of course. He could not believe it. How had he not known about this before? This year, it's been hard enough for Igey to put together his own story. The idea that I-- wait, everybody comes from somewhere? It kinda blew his mind.

Ira Glass

Mary Wiltenburg of The Christian Science Monitor. She's working on a book about Igey, Bill Clinton and their family.

Our program was produced today by Lisa Pollak and myself with Alex Blumberg, Sean Cole, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Alissa Shipp and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Our production help Randy Dixon. Seth Lind is our production manager. Music help from Jessica Hopper. Thanks today to Bob Folkenflik, Matt Holtzman and Hank Rosenfeld. Pino Audia's research paper about garages and entrepreneurs that I talked about at the beginning of the show was done with Christopher Rider. Dan Heath, who we also talked to at the top of the show is the co-author of the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Barry Siegel's book from Act Two of our show is just out in paperback. Claim of Privilege is what it's called.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International WBEZ. Management oversight for a program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who hears himself quoted in these credits every single week and says, "I never said that. I would never say that."

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI: Public Radio International.