Better Check Those Quotes
As commencement speeches are heard across the land, speakers are reaching for their inner Bartlett’s. Unfortunately, some of these speakers need to do a little more fact checking before they insert quotes into their speeches.
At Boston University last Sunday, for instance, Les Moonves, the president of CBS, quoted John Lennon to the assembled throng: ”Life is what happens to you when you are making other plans.” Senator Bill Frist, encouraging graduates-to-be at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, quoted Margaret Mead: ”Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.” And Mark Warner, former governor of Virginia, promised the audience at Wake Forest University that he would follow ”Winston Churchill’s sage advice” on public speaking: ”Be clear. Be concise. Be seated.” You could look it up (as James Thurber, and then Casey Stengel, said), but could you trust the source? As Ralph Keyes explains in his new book, ”The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When” (St. Martin’s Griffin), even the most respectable sources can get attributions wrong, and the less respectable don’t even try to get them right. That line Moonves quoted does appear in a Lennon song, for instance-but it doesn’t originate there. Keyes found it attributed to Allen Saunders (creator of the comic strip ”Mary Worth”) in a 1957 Reader’s Digest-though you wouldn’t want to take that as the last word on the subject. Frist had the right wording for Margaret Mead’s most famous ”quotation,” but, says Keyes, nobody has ever been able to show, ”despite copious research,” that she ever said or wrote it. As for Churchill, he-like Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln-is what Keyes calls a ”flypaper figure,” a personage so famously quotable that lesser wags’ witticisms and anonymous maxims, like the one Warner used, get stuck to him. Why is it so easy to go wrong? ”Our memory wants quotations to be better than they usually were, and said by the person we want to have said them,” writes Keyes. A good line-like ”any man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart, and anyone who is still a socialist at 40 has no head”-deserves a Churchill (or a Disraeli or a Bismarck). Unfortunately, the sentiment originated with a French statesman named Francois Guizot. Who wants to quote Francois Guizot?