The misstep was probably inevitable, given the many comparisons made between Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln. With seven weeks to go in Obama’s presidential campaign, the young candidate from Illinois inadvertently committed one of the most common sins in American politics—he used a phony Lincoln quote.
“Abraham Lincoln once said to one of his opponents,” then-senator Obama asserted, “‘If you stop telling lies about me, I’ll start telling truth about you.'”
William Randolph Hearst, who ran for governor of New York in 1906, also liked that line. But it was Republican senator Chauncey Depew, another prominent New Yorker, who is actually the first person known to employ a version of the phrase to bash his opponents back in the 19th century.
June is the month to celebrate the graduating class. It is also a month when bogus quotations flourish like spring flowers. For that we can thank commencement speakers, lazy speechwriters, partisan politics, and the Internet—that most powerful engine of misinformation. But special thanks should be reserved for American heads of state. Once a president misstates a quote, it’s especially hard to kill it.
John F. Kennedy was a repeat offender. In a 1963 speech, he misquoted Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, warning Chinese leaders that in the event of a nuclear war, “the survivors would envy the dead.” Kennedy twice gave Dante credit for the idea that “the hottest places in hell” are reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crisis. But he made perhaps his most resounding misquote in a 1961 speech, when he credited British statesman Edmund Burke with saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Politicians—including presidents Ford and Reagan and, just this past year, Florida governor Charlie Crist—have repeated it ever since.
In fact, the “good men do nothing” line was voted the most popular quote of modern times by the editors of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. One Canadian minister even says the line inspired him to launch a charity devoted to stopping the slaughter and mutilation of Tanzanian albinos. But hold on—there’s no evidence that Burke ever uttered these words. The Oxford editors have since fixed this error, sort of. They list the quote under Burke’s name, along with the notation “attributed (in a number of forms) to Burke, but not found in his writings.”
As for Kennedy’s “Khrushchev” quote? It’s from writer Herman Kahn’s 1960 book On Thermonuclear War. And while Dante wrote about hell, he did not say anything about reserved seating for moral neutralists.
Why don’t we check before repeating others’ words? Why is it that when we do, we can no longer be sure that even the reference books are correct? What motivates speakers—presidents, college professors, actors, and everyday Americans—to blithely misquote, miscredit, and fabricate?
Reader’s Digest has a particular interest in these questions, which we may as well get out of the way now. In The Yale Book of Quotations, published in 2006, editor Fred Shapiro sleuthed commonly misused quotes to their original sources. On numerous occasions, his search ended with a misattributed quote in our magazine. In recent decades, we’ve employed a diligent fact-checking team. But as penance for past sins, we offer the following handy guide.
Just as an exercise, go to your computer’s search engine and type in four words: lie, truth, boots, and world. You will get thousands of references to variations of the following quote: “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” Most will cite Mark Twain as the author of this aphorism. Al Gore has given Twain credit for it. So has Mississippi governor Haley Barbour.
But Twain didn’t say it. Charles Haddon Spurgeon did, in 1855, and he attributed the wisdom to “an old proverb.” Spurgeon was a mid-19th-century British pastor, as famous in his time as Rick Warren and Billy Graham are today in the United States. But that’s the thing about fame: It can be fleeting.
“The voters have spoken—the bastards” is a frequent laugh line at political dinners, usually attributed to Morris Udall. The witty Arizona congressman may well have said it after losing the 1976 Democratic presidential primaries, but Dick Tuck said it first, in 1966 (though his exact words were “The people have spoken—the bastards”). Who is Dick Tuck? Precisely. For the record, he’s a now-retired political prankster.
“This suggests [a] key reason for getting quotations wrong,” notes wordsmith Ralph Keyes, “the need to put them in familiar mouths.” In his book on frequently misused sayings, The Quote Verifier, Keyes calls this phenomenon flypapering—because quotes stick to people like Twain and Churchill like flypaper. “Lies, damned lies, and statistics,” for instance, is often given to Twain, but Twain himself gave credit to British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, who was so famous in his day—even in America—that quotes attributed to “a wise statesman” were assumed to be Disraeli’s. But times change.
Regardless of the slogan on T-shirts and beer council ad campaigns, Benjamin Franklin never said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
What he did extol was wine, while making a larger point about the miracles of springtime. “We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana as of a miracle,” Franklin wrote (in French!) in a 1779 letter to his friend the Abbé André Morellet. “But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine—a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”
Try putting that on a T-shirt.
Keyes calls this process bumper-stickering. It’s the process that renders Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” into “blood, sweat, and tears.” And turns baseball manager Leo Durocher’s “The nice guys are all over there—in seventh place” as the pithier “Nice guys finish last.” A full word is saved by saying “Beam me up, Scotty,” although the actual Star Trek line is “Beam us up, Mr. Scott.”
President Reagan certainly fit Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage—”grace under pressure” (yes, Hemingway really did say this)—when he told first lady Nancy Reagan, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” after he was shot. This may have been spontaneous, but it wasn’t original. Jack Dempsey said it to his wife after losing the heavyweight boxing title to Gene Tunney in 1926. The president perhaps assumed that everyone would know the reference. Nonetheless, it is often attributed to Reagan.
The past couple of years, as the federal budget has ballooned out of control, Washington wags have been reprising a line usually attributed to former Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen, who served on Capitol Hill from 1933 to 1969: “A billion here, a billion there—pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” Actually, it’s an old Depression-era line; a variation of the quip was once even attached to Herbert Hoover. But Dirksen was more popular than Hoover. Who wants to hear from the politician most closely associated with the Great Depression? So the line caught on with Dirksen’s name attached.
Many of the sayings often attributed to Ben Franklin were ones he actually appropriated and put into the mouth of Richard in his Colonial-era guide to life, Poor Richard’s Almanack. Franklin didn’t pretend his sayings were original: “Why then should I give my Readers bad lines of my own,” he asked in his 1747 Almanack, “when good ones of other People’s are so plenty?” Thus, “A word to the wise is sufficient” and “Early to bed, early to rise …” are Franklin’s—but not originally.
As a flypaper figure, Franklin is also given credit for words uttered by his contemporaries, such as: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” If this was said at all, it was most likely by Richard Penn, the governor of Pennsylvania during the American Revolution.
There is an old newsroom saying, “too good to check”—meaning, if it’s too good to check, it probably isn’t true. Conservatives may wish that Dwight D. Eisenhower, when asked if he thought he’d made mistakes as president, had replied, “Yes, two, and they are both sitting on the Supreme Court.” It captured his frustration with the liberal tendencies of Earl Warren and William Brennan. But the oft-repeated story is unsourced. True, Eisenhower once told a Republican leader privately that appointing Warren was “one of the two biggest mistakes I made in my administration,” according to an oral history at the Eisenhower library. But the quip itself has been attributed to other presidents and is probably apocryphal.
This kind of thing has gotten worse in the era of the Internet. Surely, liberal activist and singer Barbra Strei sand thought she was being profound at a 2002 fund-raising concert for the Democratic Party when she read what she thought was a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervor … When the drums of war have reached a fever pitch and the blood boils with hate and the mind has closed, the leader will have no need in seizing the rights of the citizenry … How do I know? For this is what I have done. And I am Caesar.” Streisand was trying to allude to George W. Bush, but this was no more Shakespeare than it was Dr. Seuss. It was an Internet hoax, which Streisand was forced to acknowledge.
Another Web story involves Miriam Amanda “Ma” Ferguson, Texas’s first woman governor. Someone suggested that the new Spanish-speaking immigrants might benefit from classes taught in their native language. Furious, Ma picked up the King James Version of the New Testament and shouted, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for Texas!”
Ma has been credited with this goofy statement by New York Times columnist William Safire and Texas humorist Kinky Friedman, among others, none of whom has ever cited a source. Of course, that would be difficult. Ma Ferguson was a college-educated progressive, and it’s highly unlikely she said it. The yarn, in fact, dates to at least 1881, when Ferguson was six.
Republican president Calvin Coo lidge’s most famous line is “The business of America is business.” To this day, Democrats won’t give it a rest. Just last October, West Virginia senator Robert Byrd quoted it on the floor of the Senate. Did Coolidge really make the remark about the primacy of profit? The answer is, not really.
In a 1925 speech, Coolidge did utter these words: “After all, the chief business of the American people is business.” But he was building to a different point—the opposite one: “Of course the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence. We want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism.”
There’s another American trait that competes with idealism—and that’s our desire to sound hip and not overly sentimental, especially about our politics. Wasn’t it Harry Truman who casually dismissed his critics by stating that if you really want a friend in Washington, you should buy a dog? Actually, no. The line is fake, even though it’s often attributed to Truman. But President Obama still used it himself, although mercifully without blaming poor Harry. Appearing on The Tonight Show in March, the president said, “You know, they say if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
Yes, “they” do say that. But perhaps what they ought to say is, “If you want to help a friend in Washington, get him a reliable quote book.” That’s Ben Franklin.
Well, no—but it could have been.