Ralph was interviewed about political misquotations by Lauren Collins of The New Yorker.
NAMES IN VAIN
The New Yorker, February 27, 2012
Last month, François Hollande, the Socialist candidate for the French Presidency, launched his campaign in the Paris suburb of Le Bourget, vowing before fifteen thousand supporters that he would “change the destiny of our country.” Hollande has the reputation of being a sallow technocrat, so it was perhaps in an effort to ennoble his persona that, toward the end of the speech, punching the air for emphasis, he invoked someone better known for eloquence. “I will now quote Shakespeare, who reminded us of this universal truth: ‘They failed because they did not start with a dream.’” Hollande said. Unfortunately, the passage that had so moved him, or his speechwriters, was from “The Vision of Elena Silves,” a 1989 novel about a Peruvian Maoist revolutionary, by Nicholas Shakespeare, the Telegraph’s chief book reviewer.
Elvis Presley was also a little vague on Shakespeare—“You know, someone said that the world’s a stage and each must play a part”—but politicians, who turn to the aperçus of others as a shortcut to fluency, are probably the world’s premier manglers of the Bard, and of everyone else. When, during the Clarence Thomas hearings, then-Senator Joe Biden identified Shakespeare as the author of the phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” his colleague Alan Simpson pointed out that the passage (slightly garbled) came from William Congreve’s play “The Mourning Bride.” “Why Shakespeare?” Marjorie Garber writes, in “Profiling Shakespeare.” “Well, for one thing, Shakespeare is ‘safe’: neither too high nor too low, He is . . . the abiding, ventriloquized voice of us all, of disembodied wisdom.” But back to Elvis. “Before we get started, let’s all say ‘Happy Birthday’ to Elvis Presley today,” Michele Bachmann said, on August 16th, which was actually the day that Elvis died. Two months earlier, Bachmann had said, in Waterloo, Iowa, where she grew up: “What I want them to know is, just like John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa, that’s the kind of spirit I have, too.” Wayne’s parents lived in Waterloo for a time, before moving to Winterset, Iowa, where he was born, but Waterloo was the home town of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
Presidential candidates, possessed of more abundant airtime, perhaps, than ideas with which to fill it, are the Dorothy Parkers of misquotation and misattribution. Remember Sarah Palin, and her notion that Paul Revere had warned the British that they weren’t going to take away our firearms? In New Hampshire, Mitt Romney—who once riled a crowd of Cuban-Americans by invoking, in positive terms, Castro’s slogan “Patria o muerte, venceremos”—declared, “Winston Churchill said, ‘When the facts change, I change, too, Madam.’” Only, it was John Maynard Keynes, the economist not much beloved of Republicans, who is commonly thought to have said it, and he said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sit?” (Scholars have recently suggested that the attribution to Keynes is apocryphal/) According to Ralph Keyes, the author of “‘Nice Guys Finish Seventh’: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations,” Romney, with Keynes, committed a double whammy of misquotation, by “putting the wrong words in the wrong mouth.” (The only worse sin is that of Charles Barkley, who once complained that he’d been misquoted in his autobiography.) It was Biden, again, who told Katie Couric, in 2008, “When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on the television and didn’t just talk about the princes of greed. He said, ‘Look, here’s what happened,’” Problem was, Herbert Hoover was President in 1929, and barely anyone had a TV.
Keyes, the quotation expert, said, “I’m not a Gingrich man, but he’s one of the few politicians I can take my hat off to.” Gingrich, he explained, diligently remembers the words “tends to” when quoting Lord Acton’s oft-abridged dictum on power. (Properly, it’s “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”) “It’s pretty impressive,” Keyes said. Dick Williams wrote, in his 1995 political biography, “Newt!,” that since high school Gingrich has been jotting down quotes on scraps of paper, which now fill dozens of shoeboxes. Had Gingrich heeded Ralph Waldo Emerson on generosity—“The only gift is a portion of thyself”—he might have been inclined to share his hoard with Herman Cain. At a Republican debate in Ames, Iowa, Cain declared, “A poet once said, ‘Life can be a challenge, life can seem impossible, but it’s never easy when there’s so much on the line.’” The verses were actually from the theme song from “Pokémon: The Movie 2000.” That is not Nicholas Pokémon.