This will be a column about mistakes. Naturally, it will include at least one mistake of my own. Gold's Law says that anybody who writes about mistakes makes mistakes. Gold's Law is chiseled in stone. It is immutable.
Mistake No. 1: Kathleen O'Connor of Alexandria reports that Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, published by Consolidated Book Publishers of Chicago, lists our 39th president as James Earl Carter Jr. and our 40th president as Ronald Wilson Reagan!
I asked a Chicago information operator for Consolidated Book Publishers' phone number. "We don't have a listing for Consolidated Book Publishers," the operator said. "How about Consolidated Press?"
I tried Consolidated Press, but was told, "That's not our book. That was Consolidated Publishers, which has since been absorbed by Del Aire Publishing Co. of New York."
New York information gave me the number for Del Aire, but the executive editor there told me I was sniffing on the wrong trail. "You want Crown Publishing," he said. "The dictionary section of their book was done on license from us. They pay us a royalty to use the type. Try Alan Mirken, the president of Crown."
I called Crown in New York and was told the book had been published by a sister company," Outlet Book Co., which is apparently also headed by Mirken. Eventually, I got as far as Mirken's secretary. Mirken himself was where all good executives spend their lives: in a meeting.
When the secretary asked whether she could help me, I read her Kathleen's report and asked whether Mr. Mirken would like to make a response.
"Mr. Mirken has already issued a statement about that," she said in icecold tones. "He will have nothing further to say."
"What has he said so far?" I asked.
"He issued a statement," she said.
"What was in the statement?"
"It's been in all the papers."
"Not in Washington."
"All the papers in New York."
"But this nice lady in Alexandria doesn't read the New York papers, and she wants to know what Mr. Mirken said in his statement."
The secretary said, "I'll read you the story that was in The Times." And she did. Mirken had told the New York reporters that the book was scheduled to be published right after the election. In the preliminary layout. Reagan's name was added to the presidential list to fill out the space, just as had been done in preparing the editorial copy in 1976, when it was guessed that Carter would win. If the publication date had remained as planned and the winner turned out to be Carter, there would have been time to change the line. "However, sales were higher than anticipated and the new edition was needed earlier than we thought it would be. Unfortunately, in the hurry to get it to press they neglected to delete the line reserved for the outcome of the 1980 presidential election."
I can sympathize with Mirken. Many publishers set up miltiple versions of an expected news event. As soon as the outcome is known, the wrong version is dumped into the hellbox and the right version goes to press. Occasionally, alas, something goes awry and the wrong version is published. As Jane Ace so aptly put it, "We all make mistakes. After all, we're only human once."
Mistake (?) No. 2 is brought to our attention by Elizabeth Hucks of Springfield. Recent articles in Parade magazine under the bylines Walter Scott and Lloyd Shearer have stated that no American president has been an only child.However, "World Book and several other sources say Franklin D. Roosevelt was the only child of James and Sara Roosevelt."
I, too, found that statement in many reference books. However, I also found this in the Encyclopedia Americana: "Four years after his first wife died in 1876, James (Roosevelt) met and married Sara Delano." Later there is a cryptic reference to another child, apparently from James' first marriage: (Franklin's) half-brother was an adult when Franklin was born."
So apparently FDR was the only child of James and Sara Roosevelt but was not James Roosevelt's only son.I'm not sure whether Parade's mistake was a mistake, or whether I made a mistake in thinking it was a mistake.
There is less doubt in my mind about a clipping of an op-ed column forwarded by Capt. John H. Cotten, USN Ret. The sentence we published was: "Just before dawn, I found myself standing alone on Key Bridge, looking downstream . . . at the way the city's million lights, mixed with those of a billion stars, shown in the dark waters."
I'll have to guess that this one was dictated to somebody who typed it. Unfortunately, shown and shone sound identical when spoken.
Sure, somebody should have caught it. But remember: We're only human once.