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  • Guilt by association: My Sarah Palin number is 2. Does that mean I palled around with terrorists?

    My Sarah Palin number is 2. That means I can never be president, which doesn't bother me, but it seriously reduces my street cred, since the vice presidential candidate stands for everything I've been satirizing for years.

    My connection to Palin is tenuous but damning: my former editor Michael Spooner knew her back when he lived in Alaska. Nevertheless, as my Palin connection put it in a recent listserv post, "Nobody's clean. Nobody."

    A Palin number is like an Erdös number. Mathematicians make a game of seeing who wrote a paper with someone who wrote a paper with the prolific Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös. It's a six-degrees-of-separation thing. The number of steps you need to get from your article to one with Erdös as co-author is your Erdös number.

    An Erdös number requires co-authorship. If it just entailed knowing someone who knew someone who knew Erdös, then I could claim an Erdös number of 4.

    A Bacon number is like an Erdös number – it's the number of steps needed to connect an actor to the actor Kevin Bacon (oddly enough, Bacon wasn't in Six Degrees of Separation). My Bacon number, like my Erdös number, is 4: my daughter has an IMDB credit for working on a movie with Pat Morita, who was in a movie with Marcia Gay Harden, who was in Rails and Ties with Kevin Bacon. To have a Bacon number, you have to have a movie connection, which I do. I shot many home videos of my daughter's birthday parties.

    Kevin Bacon in  

    Kevin Bacon in "Rails and Ties" (2007)

    It was a bummer to find out that my Palin number was 2. But to make matters worse, my Bill Ayers number is 2 as well. Ayers, who founded the Weather Underground in 1969, was a domestic terrorist who made bombs, went underground, reformed, went back to school, and now teaches educational theory at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

    Barack Obama has a Bill Ayers number of 1, because he met Ayers on a number of occasions since they both lived in Hyde Park and served together on some community organization boards.

    Bill Ayers 

    Bill Ayers, Weather Underground leader and Distinguished Professor at UIC

    Unlike Barack Obama, I never met Bill Ayers (I'm at the University of Illinois in Urbana, not Chicago), but I do know several faculty members at UIC who attended faculty meetings where Ayers was present. Because of his Ayers number, Sarah Palin accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists who would target their own country." Since I've got a low Ayers number, Palin would probably call me a domestic terrorist as well.

    Maybe she's right. I've palled around with some pretty shady characters in the past, and it doesn't help that my Angela Davis number is 2. Davis was a T.A. for Herbert Marcuse when I was an undergrad at Brandeis, and my roommate was in that course. My Abbie Hoffman number is 2 (another Brandeis connection). And my Unabomber number is also 2: I know someone who was Ted Kaczynski's freshman comp teacher at Harvard. WIth an Ayers number of 2, I have a Bernardine Dohrn number of 3 (the former radical is married to Ayers). And finally, my closeness to Palin means that, even though I can't see it from my backyard, I have only two degrees of separation from Russia, a country that remains our mortal enemy despite the end of the Cold War.

    FBI sketch of the Unabomber 

    FBI sketch of the Unabomber

    On the upside, my Jack Kennedy number is also 2. That's because when I was a kid I met Ted Sorensen, who was an aide to Kennedy and served as one of his speechwriters. Sorensen was an old friend of my stepfather's, from Lincoln, Nebraska, and I met him in Kennedy's Senate office one summer when we were on a family visit to Washington. Kennedy was off at a Senate debate, so I didn't manage to see him in person, but I did get a U.S. Senate pencil with his name on it (sorry, eBay watchers, it's long gone).

    Ted Sorensen and JFK 

    Ted Sorensen and John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1962

    I never met Lloyd Bentsen or Dan Quayle, and I can assure you that I'm no Jack Kennedy. But a JFK number of 2 means that my Jackie O number is 3, as is my Marilyn Monroe number. Oh, and my Barack Obama number? It's a 2! (because of doctor-patient confidentiality, FERPA, and the Secret Service, I can't specify the links further). With connections like that, I'm not worried about pit bulls with lipstick terrorizing me.

    Paul Erdos 

    The chain of terror starts with Paul Erdös . . . 

    Sarah Palin 

    . . . and leads directly to Sarah Palin. Don't believe me? Do the math

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