Theme Answers -- Election Day 1996
If you don't know how you got here, it was probably from here, or maybe here.
On Tuesday, November 5, 1996, a standard 15 by 15 crossword puzzle constructed by Jeremiah Farrell appeared in The New York Times that the editor, Will Shortz,
said was the most amazing puzzle he'd ever seen.
Before I go on you need to decide whether you want to play the puzzle. If you do then you should play it now, before you read much further.
To play it, which you should want to do before reading much further, you will need to download and install Litsoft's Across Lite, which is a crossword-playing program.
It's free, it works the way you'd want, and it won't hurt your computer. If you haven't already, learn more about it
here, then download it and install it, then come back.
All righty, now that Across Lite is installed (that was easy, wasn't it?) you're ready to play this remarkable puzzle. Choose either of the following files. As long as you
don't peek, it does not matter which one you choose; if you do it might.
OK, now that you've played the puzzle or decided you really don't want to, go ahead and scroll down.
Copyright 1996 New York Times
At left is the entire puzzle grid showing only the important answers.
- Near the top, "Forecast" = PROGNOSTICATION
- The all-important clue is 39A:
"Lead story in tomorrow's newspaper (!), with 43A"
- 43A is "See 39A" = ELECTED
- Near the bottom, "Title for 39A next year" = MISTER PRESIDENT
So, the four theme entries work out to this:
PROGNOSTICATION : LEAD STORY IN TOMORROW'S NEWSPAPER : _
_ _ _ _ _ _ ELECTED
TITLE FOR _ _ _ _ _ _ _
NEXT YEAR : MISTER PRESIDENT
The puzzle is predicting who will win the 1996 presidential election despite the fact the polls hadn't closed as of the morning the
puzzle ran. How could the constructor and the editor be so sure they'd picked the right candidate?
In case you haven't already learned, or figured out, why this puzzle is so clever, take another look, below, at the most important part of the grid while you read the clues for the
seven Down answers crossing the crucial seven-letter answer at 39A.
Moving strictly from left to right, here are the clues for the seven Down answers that intersect 39-Across.
39D Black Halloween animal
40D French 101 word
41D Provider of support, for short
23D Sewing shop purchase
27D Short writings
42D Much-debated political inits.
Hover, then click.
If you played this puzzle, whether it was back in 1996 or just now, did you ever catch on that two entirely
different answers were possible? I know I didn't.
And I now see
why I should
have. The clue at 39 Across contains a clue that something unusual is going on, because of that quite uncharacteristic use of an exclamation point (!) inside parentheses.
I don't remember from seven years ago which candidate I filled in for 39 Across, but I do remember I had no idea there could be two answers. I am curious to know what
percentage of players who finished this puzzle correctly remain entirely oblivious, to this day, to the possibility of a
different answer. Well, actually, eight different answers.
This is an outstanding NYT crossword that, I'll bet, not enough people know about.
To begin with, the constructor had to realize, well ahead of time, that there would be an important election between William Jefferson "Bill" Clinton and
Robert Joseph "Bob" Dole, and that their names
could be made to be the same length, and that no letter in the same position would match, and that diagonal symmetry and all the other rules of grid layout
could be maintained. To even think of this theme gimmick is
To implement it is extraordinary. The constructor figured out not two or three but seven Down clues that could have two meanings depending
on the swapping of one letter for another.
And not just any pair of seven-letter answers, which would be tough enough, but an exactly prescribed set, which means the answers that cross the
answers that cross those answers will also be more difficult to invent, not to mention that some of them have to fit the other two theme answers.
And the seven Down answers are not spread out any symmetrical way the author might have wanted, they had to be consecutive.
Altogether, this is a true tour de force of puzzle-making.
Will Shortz, the editor who decided to publish this puzzle, said, "As soon as it appeared, my telephone started ringing. Most people said,
'How dare you presume that Clinton will win!' And the people who filled in BOB DOLE thought we'd made a whopper of a mistake!"
Now, aren't you glad you took my advice and played the puzzle first?
And now, you also see why I provided you with a choice of two puzzles, Nov0596a.puz and Nov0596b.puz.
If you peek in Across Lite, the "a" version shows the Clinton answer and the "b" version the Bob Dole answer.
Here are other sources on the subject of Jeremiah Farrell's NYT Election Day crossword puzzle.
Oddly, only one of them mentions his name.
Update of January 2004: I tracked down Professor Farrell and impesturated him for answers to certain questions,
and he consented to a sort of e-nterview. Here
is his generous response.
It has taken a bit of time to find and assemble my notes and early results that pertain to the
"Election" puzzle and its analogs. I hope this account will be of interest to you.
For the 1996 election puzzle itself, let me quote Will Shortz from Coral Amende's fine book
The Crossword Obsession (Berkley Books, New York, Oct. 2001, ISBN 0-425-68157-X).
WILL SHORTZ: As I’ve often said, this is my favorite crossword of all time. It
actually started back in fall 1980, when I was an associate editor at GAMES. Constructor Jeremiah Farrell sent
me a crossword in which 1 Across could be either CARTER or REAGAN (clued as “Winner of the 1980 Presidential election”
or something like that). Either answer fit with the clues for the crossing words. For some reason,
Maleska, who was the editor at the Times then, had rejected this puzzle. I thought it was pretty amazing,
and told Jerry so. Unfortunately, GAMES was a bimonthly magazine, and it was too late to get the puzzle
into the November/December issue.
Sixteen years later, Jerry remembered my enthusiasm for the idea and constructed a new (and
much improved) version of the puzzle involving CLINTON and BOB DOLE. When the puzzle appeared on Election Day,
my phone at the Times started ringing at 9:00 and continued the whole day. Almost nobody seemed to
realize that either answer fit the grid! The solvers who filled in CLINTON thought that I was being presumptuous
at best, and maybe that I was inserting a political opinion into the puzzle. And the solvers who filled in BOB
DOLE thought that I'd made a whopper of a mistake! Peter Jennings did a piece about the puzzle on ABC News that
evening. He did explain both answers. And both answers appeared in the Times the next day, along
with an explanation.
Will is correct in the details about that 1980 election puzzle. I can add that Maleska's
concern was "What if Anderson wins?" (John B. Anderson, Independent, received less than 7% of the popular vote in
Early in 1981, I decided that this theme of multiple answers was too good to relegate to the
ash can and constructed a 15x15 crossword puzzle called "A question of Priority" and submitted it to Miriam Raphael's
"Champion Crosswords." She ran the puzzle in her 1982 collection #3 (Cornerstone Library ISBN 0-346-12556-1).
The key entry was at 56 Across, “The answer to an old priority question,” and the solver was supposed to fill in the
15-letter result “The _ _ _ Came First.” Of course the three blanks could be filled in with either HEN or EGG.
I like this puzzle because in some zen-like way there is a correct answer but it remains unknown to mere mortals.
In 1996, when it was clear that Clinton and Bob Dole (as he always referred to himself) were nominated, I set to work on
the election puzzle. It took me about 10 hours to construct the first version, which contained the key entries
across the middle. Will Shortz edited much of the puzzle eventually and he and his staff greatly improved it.
They didn’t touch the “election” part.
A sidelight. The July 9, 2003, NYT Puzzle by Patrick Merrell was about last year’s Tour de France.
The entry at 35 Across was clued “[Prediction] Lance Armstrong at the end of the 2003 20-Across.” The 13-letter
answer could be filled in with either FOUR-TIME CHAMP or FIVE-TIME CHAMP.
This ambiguous answer was so close to the ideas in the Election puzzle that Shortz and Merrell decided to acknowledge my
puzzle by starting the first seven across clues with the letters FARRELL in the acrostic style. I was gratified by
this unexpected tribute.
Patrick Merrell is a talented freelance illustrator and graphic designer (http://patrick.merrell.org).
His “Treasure Hunt” puzzle in the Sunday, July 20, 2003, NYT, is one of my favorite puzzles. I hope that
Patrick continues his puzzle career. His is very imaginative.
As for me, I no longer construct crosswords. I spend my time writing articles and books on combinatorial games and
puzzles. Some of my students are helping construct wooden models of such puzzles to be used by blind students at
the Indiana School for the Blind.
For your essay, however, I offer your readers the following little 3x4 telekinesis puzzle:
First, toss a coin and note the result.
1 Your coin shows a ____ 1 Half a laugh
5 Wagner’s earth goddess 2 Station terminus?
6 Word with one or green 3 Dec follower?
4 Certain male
The result in 1-Across should not surprise you. I caused it to happen at very long
range, and at a time of your choosing, by telekinesis!
Butler University, Indianapolis, Indiana
What a guy(!)
Update of February 2, 2006: An article in today's Kansas City
Star refers to this puzzle as well as to a movie named Wordplay,
about which you can read more here.