Politicians at the national level live in a public spotlight, with their every move scrutinized. Their comments are studied and parsed for meaning. So it’s strange how often famous politicians get saddled with words they never used, or they’re credited for originating a phrase they borrowed from someone else’s work. This was understandable before the modern era — there were no tape recorders or video cameras and record keeping was shaky. But even today, thanks to social media, once a politician gets stuck with a quote, it will be endlessly circulated until everyone forever links the politician and quote. Here are 10 famous quotes or misquotations that are frequently misattributed to politicians, including a couple of recent ones to show how such a phenomenon develops.
10. Sarah Palin
“I can see Russia from my house.”
Love her or hate her — and there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground with the former Alaska governor and 2008 U.S. vice presidential candidate — Palin will likely be forever tied to this quote, which refers to Alaska’s proximity to the Soviet Union. But she never actually used that line. During an ABC interview with Charlie Gibson, Palin noted that, “…you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.” It was Saturday Night Live regular Tina Fey, doing an impression of Palin, who cemented the quote in the public’s consciousness.
9. Harry Truman
“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
Truman used this phrase, but it did not originate with him. The Missouri native borrowed it from Eugene Purcell, a Missouri judge and former colleague. Truman also is well known for the sign he kept on his desk, “The Buck Stops Here,” but he did not originate that pithy phrase, either.
8. Winston Churchill
“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by
the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”
This quote, commonly used by older conservatives to justify their political views, is almost always attributed to the great English statesman, but according to the Churchill Centre and Museum in London, “There is no record of anyone hearing Churchill say this.” The book, Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (Ralph Keyes, 1992), cites 19th century French statesmen Francois Guizot with coining the phrase, “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.”
7. Ronald Reagan
“There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
Reagan is commonly credited with this optimistic advice, but the phrase dates to the 19th century.
6. Al Gore
“I invented the Internet.”
Gore didn’t invent the Internet, although he made a statement that was so ambiguous it became immediate fodder for comedians and his political opponents. In a March 1999 interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s Late Edition, Gore said that, “During my service, in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” As the urban-legend research site Snopes.com notes, “Clearly, although Gore’s phrasing might have been a bit clumsy (and perhaps self-serving), he was not claiming that he ‘invented’ the Internet…” Gore, however, was a longtime proponent of measures to build and improve the “information superhighway.” As a U.S. senator, Gore sponsored the High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991, which laid the framework for advances such as high-speed fiber optic connections.
5. Jimmy Carter
“There is a national malaise affecting our country.”
Jimmy Carter’s July 15, 1979, televised speech from the White House is popularly known as the “national malaise” speech, for its pessimistic view of American society. But Carter never used the word “malaise” in his speech, in which he declared a “crisis of confidence” posed a “fundamental threat to American democracy.”
4. Theodore Roosevelt
“Walk softly and carry a big stick.”
There’s no question that the 26th president of the United States popularized a quote similar to this in the early 20th century. But Roosevelt readily admitted he borrowed it from an old African proverb. And the actual wording, which he first used in a 1900 letter to a colleague, was this: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”
3. Joseph Stalin
“One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic.”
Mass executions, deadly famines and other woes befell the Soviet Union under Stalin’s brutal regime. Stalin’s actions directly or indirectly led to millions of deaths, which makes it so easy to believe he coined the phrase, “A million deaths is just a statistic.” According to a 1997 article in the Moscow Times, Russian historians have no record of him saying this.
2. Thomas Jefferson
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Often restated as “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” this quote has been attributed to several 18th and 19th century statesmen, but Thomas Jefferson usually gets the credit. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations credits Irishman John Philpot Curran, with using a similar phrase in a 1790 speech: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” However, Bartleby.com cites an 1852 speech by American abolitionist Wendell Phillips with introducing the phrase in its current form.
Jefferson is a veritable magnet in attracting credit for phrases he never used. Other popular quotes improperly attributed to the early American statesman are “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” and “The best government is that which governs least.”
1. Abraham Lincoln
“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time,
but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
It’s a great quote, and it seems perfectly reasonable to most people that Lincoln would have used it. Lincoln may have said something similar to this in an 1858 speech, but the evidence is very shaky. The remark was first attributed to Lincoln in 1886, more than 20 years after his death. According to abrahamlincolnassociation.org, two newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, investigated the remark’s origins in 1905, almost half a century after Lincoln supposedly used the line. Several elderly witnesses recalled that Lincoln said something like that; however, other witnesses could not recall the quote, and the printed reports of the speech did not include it. Bottom line: As one Lincoln scholar noted: “The evidence is far from conclusive, but it is not lacking in probability. It sounds like Lincoln.”