by Richard Polt
In September 2004, typewriter experts, including me, got some unusual media attention. The question was whether the documents used by "60 Minutes" to support the allegation that George W. Bush did not properly perform his National Guard duties, documents supposedly written by Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian in 1972 and 1973, could really have been produced at that time. Here are the documents:
Dated 04 May 1972
Dated 19 May 1972
Dated 01 August 1972
Dated 18 August 1973
The documents were obviously not produced by a commonly used typewriter of the period, and obviously could easily have been produced by a word processing program on a personal computer. Here are the features that make me (and so many others) say this:
- Differential spacing (an "i" is narrower than a "w," for instance). This was a feature found on some expensive typewriters (such as the IBM Executive), but most were monotype machines (each character is equally wide). Most computer fonts, such as the Times New Roman that is the default font for Microsoft Word and that looks much like the font in these documents, are differentially spaced.
- Kerning. The characters in the documents appear to be closely fit together, or "kerned," in a way that is typical of word processing but difficult to achieve on an ordinary typewriter.
- The small superscript "th" in "187th" and some occurrences of "111th." It is easy to make a superscript on any typewriter--just turn the platen. But it is not so easy to make a superscript that is in smaller type than the rest of the type. Either you need a special "little th" character (possible, but unusual), or you need to switch to a different type element (such as a Selectric type ball) that uses a smaller type, then switch back to the first type element. But Microsoft Word automatically superscripts the "th."
- Curly apostrophes. Most typewriters used straight apostrophes (as in he's). But curly apostrophes (as in he’s) are standard in word processing.
- Centering. Three lines of perfectly centered text (found at the top of two of the documents) are easy to produce on a computer. They can also be produced on any typewriter, of course, but you have to count the characters -- or, on a typewriter using differential spacing, you would actually have to measure each line of text. It would require some time-consuming arithmetic.
- This animated GIF shows just how similar one of the documents is to a word-processed document using Times New Roman font:
Given facts such as these, CBS finally admitted that it could not authenticate these documents. However, there were some doubts left in some people's minds (including mine), because some high-end early-seventies typewriters featured differential spacing, interchangeable fonts, and other sophisticated capacities; these included the Varityper and the IBM Selectric Composer.
Now, however, I have no doubts left: the documents are definitely fakes. In order to prove this, one has to get into the nitty-gritty of sophisticated early-seventies typewriters. The man to do this is Fred Woodworth, an Arizona printer who despises computers, is familiar with differential-spacing typewriters, and still lays out several periodicals using a Varityper. I will let Woodworth speak for himself (with his permission). His 2004 letter to me on this topic, written on an IBM Selectric Composer, is available here as a PDF.
In response to an objection about his typing of the text on one of the memos, Woodworth has written a followup letter in 2012 that is available here.
We are presenting this information solely as a matter of technical interest, not as a political statement (for the record, I'm a Democrat, and Woodworth describes himself as an ethical anarchist). I take no position on who produced these fakes and on whether the allegations against George W. Bush are true.