Top 10 Presidential Quotes of the 20th Century

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The “bully pulpit” is the power of American presidents to get things done with the spoken word. FDR, Kennedy and Reagan were masterful. Bush was inept. Eisenhower was a man of few words; Clinton a man of too many. LBJ bullied; Carter sermonized. Truman spoke honestly; Nixon did not. Presidents talk a lot, but we remember most the sound bites they leave behind, like echoes. These are the top 10 presidential quotes of the 20th century.


10. “I’ve committed adultery in my heart.”

President Jimmy Carter's cardigan evoked criticism in some circles.
Ironically, of all modern presidents Jimmy Carter was the least likely to go astray. Carter was the president Mister Rogers wished he could be. Wearing a cardigan sweater during a fireside TV chat on saving energy, Carter was the scold in chief. He warned of a “national malaise,” never understanding he was contributing to it. He lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan (who was never photographed in a cardigan).


9. “Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm. There’s nothing to do but stand there and take it.”

Lyndon B. Johnson was one of the most colorful presidents of the 20th century.
Lyndon Johnson branded the butts of his prized steers – and everyone he knew. He was bigger than life, ruthless and coarse, yet LBJ’s Great Society protected civil rights, education and the elderly. This American Goliath was felled by “Uncle Ho.” Said Johnson, “If I left the woman I really loved — the Great Society — in order to get involved in that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home.”


8. “We must guard against the … military-industrial complex.”

Dwight Eisenhower issued a warning to Americans in his final speech as president.

Dwight D. Eisenhower galloped into the Oval Office on a warhorse. Yet the Allied commander of D-Day was a lackluster chief executive. Stephen Ambrose in “Eisenhower: Soldier and President” reports, “A national poll of academic historians placed him nearly at the bottom of a list of presidents.” Eisenhower once said, “I can think of nothing more boring for the American people than to have to sit in their living rooms for a whole half hour looking at my face on their television screens.” After Eisenhower no president would ever say that again.


7. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

Bill Clinton's presidency ran into trouble after his affair with a White House intern became public.

That sound bite nearly cost Bill Clinton his presidency. A brilliant politician, Clinton projected a folksy personality. He was more Bubba than Bill — except when he was cornered. “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is,” showed that the leader of the Free World could be as slippery as an eel. Clinton loved speaking. His 1995 State of the Union was the longest in history, more than 1 hour and 25 minutes. Because Clinton is still active on the world stage, his words are still adding up.


6. “I am not a crook.”

Richard Nixon greets a crowd on the campaign trail.
Richard Nixon is the only president whose obituary includes grand larceny and grand opera (John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” is based on Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing). If there was tragedy in “Tricky Dicky,” it was that his demons masked a brilliant strategic mind. In one of history’s great ironies the man who opened China was brought low by bungling burglars opening a locked file cabinet. Nixon’s saving grace was a dogged persistence to rehabilitate himself. This statement by the aging ex-president would have made a fitting epitaph: “A man is not finished when he’s defeated; he’s finished when he quits.”


5. “This will not stand.”

George Herbert Walker Bush issued an ultimatum to Sadam Hussein.
With these words, George Herbert Walker Bush challenged Saddam Hussein and started the United States down a path of costly engagement in the Middle East. To his detriment, this decent, intelligent man was a verbal klutz. From a man who spent more time in government than any other modern chief executive came this blunder: “They want the federal government controlling Social Security like it’s some kind of federal program.” Bush was at his best when he spoke simply as in the televised press conference Aug 5, 1990, laying down the gauntlet to Hussein.


4. “The buck stops here.”

Harry S. Truman's
In plain-speaking Harry S. Truman there could not have been a starker contrast to the elegant, Ivy League aristocrat he replaced when FDR died in 1945. The most famous photo of Truman shows him triumphantly holding up the bogus headline from the Chicago Tribune, Nov. 3, 1948, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Dewey underestimated Truman. So did the Japanese imperial forces. Truman ordered the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the deadliest weapon known to humankind. He never regretted that decision: “America,” he said, “was built on courage, on imagination, and unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”


3. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”


With this address a young president rallied his country to national service. With his style-setting wife, Jackie, John F. Kennedy ushered in an age of sophistication, elegance and worldliness. Kennedy’s profile in courage was October 1962 when he stared down Nikita Khrushchev and turned back the Soviet flotilla of nuclear missiles steaming to Cuba. With the passage of years the Kennedy legend tarnished. Kennedy palled around with Mafia dons and bedded more women than Hugh Heffner in his dreams. Lee Harvey Oswald cut short the Camelot Era, but as Kennedy himself said, “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”


2. “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Ronald Reagan's speech at the Berlin Wall is regarded as a key moment in the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia.
If Ronald Reagan had never made another speech, this ringing challenge at the Berlin Wall June 12, 1987, would have earned him a place in history. Reagan was an actor, but it was more than rugged good lucks and staged delivery that transported him from hosting TV’s Death Valley Days to hosting White House dinners.

Reagan was an uncomplicated man with traditional American values. He also had a wonderful sense of humor, impish, never cruel. Criticizing bloated government, he quipped, “The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them away.”  After he survived an attempted assassination by John Hinckley, he told his beloved Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”


1. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt's
Wealthy aristocrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt was better known as “FDR” to a loving public, which elected him to an unprecedented four presidential terms. Roosevelt galvanized a nation battling the Great Depression and led the country into war against Nazi Germany and Japan. But he was not without his bitter critics. The legendary aviator Charles Lindberg was among the fiercest, described in detail in James Duffy’s “Lindbergh vs. Roosevelt: The Rivalry That Divided America.”

Roosevelt governed the country from a wheelchair, the result of polio contracted at 39. He learned fortitude and compassion from his own disability. “Once you’ve spent two years trying to wiggle one toe,” he remarked, “everything is in proportion.”


One More:  “I do grant…an absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon.”

Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon has been praised by historians.

Gerald Ford is the only American to hold the two top positions in the US government without having been elected to either. Nixon replaced his disgraced vice president, Spiro Agnew, with Ford because he was reliable. But a few trip ups, literally, created a public image of a clumsy, dimwitted guy. It didn’t help Ford that he was prone to gaffes. “I watch a lot of baseball on radio,” he said. Ford’s pardon of Nixon is widely praised today for having spared the country the bitter divisions that would have accompanied a lengthy trial.


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Written by

Dick Methia began his writing career at age 9 as a war correspondent. He covered the clash of rubber Union and Rebel armies by pecking out dispatches on a rusty Smith Corona in a backyard tent made of an old bed sheet. When the war was over, he gravitated to less serious pursuits: teacher, non-profit executive, consultant, author and (almost) astronaut.