Quote…Misquote—A Commentary by Fred R. Shapiro
By Fred R. Shapiro
For better or worse, our culture relies on quotations — literary passages, Bible verses, movie lines, song lyrics, catchphrases, proverbs — to transmit the wit and wisdom of the past and the present and to lend resonance to our everyday discourse. Perhaps the most important are the political quotes, the sound bites, slogans, zingers and bloopers that can win or lose elections and shape our arguments and opinions.
In this election year we can expect to hear much use of, and commentary about, political quotations. When you hear candidates or pundits opine on where these sayings come from, though, be aware that origin stories, no matter how confidently offered, are usually flat-out wrong; indeed, the more confidently they are offered, the more wrong they probably are. In compiling The Yale Book of Quotations, I discovered that many of the most famous political quotes were coined by someone other than the person credited by conventional wisdom and even standard reference works.
For example, we all think we know that Harry Truman originated “The buck stops here.” But we are all mistaken. Truman did receive a “gadget” displaying these four words made at the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Okla., mailed to him in 1945 and then displayed by him on his desk. A search of electronic newspaper databases, however, pulls up The Reno Evening Gazette of Oct. 1, 1942, with a photograph of a sign clearly reading “The Buck Stops Here” on the desk of Army Col. A. B. Warfield.
We are similarly certain that Everett Dirksen coined “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it begins to add up to real money.” Yet the Dirksen Congressional Center, scouring the Illinois senator’s audiotapes and transcripts, news clippings and speech notes, has found no concrete evidence of his uttering these words, only uncorroborated attributions after his death in 1969. On the other hand, a historical database search of The New York Times yields a Jan. 10, 1938, Topics of the Times column with the lines: “Well, now, about this new budget. It’s a billion here and a billion there, and by and by it begins to mount up into money.” No mention of Dirksen.
Money, and the economy more generally, is a crucial election issue that is often discussed using famous adages. One of the most famous is “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” widely ascribed to the late economist Milton Friedman, who employed it as the title of a 1975 book. Sophisticated research methods find much older occurrences. The acronym TANSTAAFL (for “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”) appears as the slogan of a revolt by lunar colonists against their earthly overlords in the sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein’s 1966 novel, “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” and still earlier in the title of a 1949 book by Pierre Dos Utt, “Tanstaafl: A Plan for a New Economic World Order.”
Also in 1949, an editorial by Walter Morrow in The San Francisco News (June 1) used the “ain’t” version as the punch line of an economics joke. The editorial states that it is a reprint of an editorial from 11 years before, but hunting through the microfilmed News from 1937 to 1939 uncovers no such article. Again the most powerful findings are produced by online newspaper archives, with “There is no free lunch” popping up in The Oelwein (Iowa) Daily Register on Nov. 25, 1942, and the following published in the again-pathbreaking Reno Evening Gazette on Jan. 22, 1942: “Mr. Wallace neglects the fact that such a thing as a ‘free’ lunch never existed. Until man acquires the power of creation, someone will always have to pay for a free lunch.”
The sharpest point of American political-economic contention is taxation. The tax quotation most likely to be cited on the campaign trail is Benjamin Franklin’s “Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Or is that Edward Ward’s line? Through the Eighteenth Century Collections Online book collection, Barry Popik, a researcher, found “Death and Taxes, they are certain” in Ward’s “Dancing Devils ”(1724). Also in ECCO, in Christopher Bullock’s “Cobler of Preston” (1716), is the sentence, “ ’Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes.”
Surely some of our cherished political-quotation stories must be accurate. What about Vice President Thomas R. Marshall’s immortal crack, “What this country really needs is a good 5-cent cigar”? The usual story goes that Marshall, in his capacity as presiding officer of the Senate, was enduring a tedious debate on the needs of the country. He then interjected the one-liner about cigars. Quotation dictionaries typically date this incident precisely to reports in newspapers of Jan. 4, 1920. The Marshall attribution, though, is blown out of the water by another electronically derived newspaper citation. The Hartford Daily Courant, on Sept. 22, 1875, printed “What this country really needs is a good 5-cent cigar” with a notation that the original source was The New York Mail.
The Yale Book of Quotations disproves many other accepted origins. The next time you hear a commentator credit “All politics is local” to Tip O’Neill, impress your friends by mentioning that the line appeared in The Frederick (Md.) News, July 1, 1932, when the future speaker of the House was only a teenage proto-pol. When a candidate refers to Otto von Bismarck’s famous maxim about “laws and sausages,” grin knowingly, point out that the Iron Chancellor was not associated with that quip until the 1930s and cite The Daily Cleveland Herald, Mar. 29, 1869, quoting the lawyer-poet John Godfrey Saxe that “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.
Fred R. Shapiro, an associate library director and lecturer in legal research at Yale Law School, is the editor of The Yale Book of Quotations (Yale University Press). William Safire is on vacation.