You can quote me on this | Chuck's World

Apr 12, 2017

Harry Truman became president of the United States 72 years ago this week, having served as Franklin Roosevelt’s vice-president for less than four months. Neither office had any appeal to Mr. Truman, who was essentially bullied onto the ticket by party elders and the president himself.

Nine men have ascended to the presidency in this way, following either the death of the incumbent (eight times) or resignation (Gerald Ford succeeding Richard Nixon in 1974), forming a subset of accidental presidents. Truman, though, belongs to a smaller group: Only four of these men went on to win election on their own (the other five weren’t even nominated again).

Remarkably enough, two of these four tend to end up toward the top of rankings by historians, for whatever that’s worth. The other two, Calvin Coolidge and Lyndon Johnson, had significant presidencies, but Truman and Theodore Roosevelt apparently won the presidential jackpot, handed the job by fate and playing the card dealt to them.

Both of these men were also immensely quotable. Roosevelt’s approach to diplomacy, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” and Truman’s approach to progress, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit,” have both entered the American presidential lexicon.

Truman also was fond of saying some variation of, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” which he, in fact, coined.

I’ve been interested in Harry Truman since college, when a history professor of mine became one of our 33rd president’s many biographers. He’d actually met the man and interviewed him before his death in 1972, irresistible nuggets of history to someone who had always loved the subject.

It made sense, then, when I was trying to locate the author of a vague quotation that had gotten stuck in my brain that it would turn out to be Truman. The exact quote was, “Decisions are made by those who show up,” and that sounds a lot like Truman.

And it’s attributed to him, often and authoritatively. Look it up yourself and you’ll see.

What you’ll also see, though, is an endless loop of references, all reinforcing each other when not citing Aaron Sorkin or Woody Allen for the quotation, or else attributing it to Benjamin Disraeli, who supposedly said, “History is made by those who show up,” which he almost certainly did not.

As for Truman? I found nothing. Maybe he said it somewhere, sometime, and maybe not. According to the fine folks at Google, it’s pretty foggy.

Why is this important? I’m not sure it is, other than I wanted to use the phrase and give proper credit. What’s clear is that I didn’t say it, someone else did. No one seems to know exactly who, and I guess I can live with that. It just sort of irks me.

Not that this is new, me being irked or misattributed quotations. It’s just getting worse, and you know it if you spend any time online at all. I assume that’s most of us. I have no idea how many are irked.

But post a picture of Mark Twain, slap a quip over it, give him credit, and the pile of useless references just got a little bigger. Twain couldn’t have said or written every amusing phrase in the English language; as Fred Shapiro recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “If you hear that ‘Mark Twain said’ something, the one thing you can be pretty sure of is that Mark Twain never said it.”

Mr. Shapiro, the editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations,” was reviewing a new book by quotation ninja Garson O’Toole, “Hemingway Didn’t Say That,” which did the job it was supposed to: I bought the book immediately.

The title comes from the well-known anecdote about Ernest Hemingway wagering he could write a short story using only six words, which were, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It’s a classic Hemingway story, retold and admired since it first arrived on the quotation scene, around 1989. Hemingway died in 1961, and O’Toole traces the origin of this to the early 20th century, when the famous writer would have been a child. Case closed.

As Shapiro pointed out, the Internet is the source of so much fiction dressed up as fact that we can mourn for elusive truth and forget that it’s a great tool for finding it. You just have to work harder, and who wants to do that? Let’s just say it was Mark Twain.

I’m uneasy with using famous quotations, for the above reasons and just because it feels a little lazy, renting wisdom by the word. I try to be judicious, and I trust nothing until trust is earned.

“Hemingway Didn’t Say That” is the book I’ve been waiting for, then. I’ve barely cracked it (it runs just under 400 pages) and already it’s probably the best reference book I own. Garson O’Toole has also been maintaining the website, quoteinvestigator.com, for several years, where you’ll find plenty of tools to make you feel smarter than your friends. Glad to oblige.

Just be careful out there. “It’s better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt,” said Mark Twain, and I’m pretty sure he really did. Even if it sounds a lot like Harry Truman.

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