Friday, August 1, 2008

Give 'Em Hell, Maureen

Maureen Dowd has run into controversy over the quotes she uses in the past. Most recently when a military spokesman denied a quote of General Petraeus over the political make-up of the armed forces.

But the most bizarre kerfuffle I’ve run across is being fanned by David Rothman who runs a blog about e-books of all things. He was writing a book that used the famous quote from Harry Truman:

If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.
Only he couldn’t find that quote in any of the usual sources. It’s on dozen of quote sites, but none of those cite any original sources. The best he could do was this Maureen Dowd column from March 10, 1989, back when Poppy was the Bush in the White House.
Unlike Harry Truman, who liked to say, ''If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog,'' Mr. Bush has always had great faith in the power of personal connections. Loyalty was a quality baked into him by his parents in Greenwich, Conn., and reinforced by Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society.
Only nobody knows when or to whom Harry Truman might have said it. Rothman went to the Harry S Truman Library where the best they could do is a line from the 1975 play Give ‘Em Hell, Harry featuring career Truman impersonator James Whitmore where the line is:
"You want a friend in life, get a dog!"
The quote is now popularly linked in the public imagination with Harry Truman. It’s used by pundits and presidents and even T. Boone Pickens. It was the inspiration for a Washington Life spread featuring power couples and their dogs. Somehow I doubt a single use by Maureen Dowd would catch on so ubiquitously. Rothman has found two citations in The Gray Lady herself that predate Dowd's column, so this phrasing had been around for a while.

So what are the possible explanations? The most likely one is that Dowd either saw the play or heard of it and the quote stuck. By the time she wrote the column, that play had been around for over a decade with constant tours and a movie version. It’d be unlikely that anyone in Washington had never seen the show at least once. It's likely that the phrase had been circulating around the Georgetown cocktail party circuit for years. Either consciously or unconsciously, she changed “in life” to “in Washington” and “get a dog” to “buy a dog.”

David Rothman is like a dog with a bone on this issue. He has tried to get a hold of Maureen to ask her where she heard the quote. He's tried to get to Clark Hoyt, the Times omsbudsman that gave Dowd a slapdown for her gender bending, involved but Hoyt couldn't get excited over a story so old. The story did get picked up by Jossip, but even the usual crowd of DowdHaters have been yawning.

Maybe Harry never said it and Dowd's paraphrase of a bio-play truly is the origin. By now the phrase has entered the zeitgeist and is unlikely to leave. If Truman never said it, what changes? Is Maureen supposed to dig some original source for an offhand portion of a fifteen-year-old column to save her reputation? Are we going to hound every writer that incorrectly quotes Harry Truman? Who is going to purge the dozens of quote sites that have gotten the same quote either from Dowd or from someone that got it from Dowd or perhaps even somewhere else?

But you can't prove a negative. You can't say for certain he never said it. It's not the type of saying that he'd use in a speech like his famous "Give 'em hell" speech, nor would it have physical evidence like his The Buck Stops Here sign. But does it even matter? If Mark Twain or Winston Churchill said half the things they are credited with, they would have never been silent. If Truman didn’t say it, he should have.

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