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Jenensch on the Media: Did He Really Say That?
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Media Commentator Paul JanenschMedia Commentator Paul JanenschDuring a political campaign, we see and hear the same sayings over and over. But was Harry Truman the originator of “the buck stops here?” Did George W. Bush really ask, “Is our children learning?” The answers from media commentator Paul Janensch may surprise you.

For my musings on famous political quotes, I must give credit to Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations. In the July 27th issue of The New York Times Sunday Magazine, he was filling in for William Safire, who usually writes the column called “On Language.” Shapiro notes that Harry Truman displayed a plaque on his desk that said, “The buck stops here.” But the quote did not START there.

The plaque was made in a federal prison by an inmate who saw a photograph of a sign on an Army officer’s desk saying, “The buck stops here.” Remembering my days covering Washington, I thought I had once heard Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen tell a group of reporters, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it begins to add up to real money.” But the Dirksen Congressional Center could find no evidence that Dirksen ever said that although it has often been attributed to him since his death in 1969. Fred Shapiro says a New York Times reporter used the statement in a piece published in 1938. I guess I just imagined I heard Dirksen say it.

Was Tip O’Neill really the first to say, “All politics is local?” No. According to The Yale Book of Quotations, the line appeared in a Maryland newspaper in 1932 when the future Speaker of the House was a teen-ager up in Massachusetts. Fred Shapiro’s piece got me thinking about other famous political quotes. Did Vice President John Nance Garner really say the vice presidency wasn’t worth “a warm bucket of spit?” Not exactly. He didn’t say “spit.” Reporters cleaned it up.

Let’s look at a couple of modern-day quotes that are often repeated in a derisive way. When asked about his vote against a supplemental appropriation for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, did Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry really say that he “did vote for the $87billion before I voted against it?” Yes. It was in March 2004 in West Virginia. Did George W. Bush ever say, “Is our children learning?” Yes. In January 2000 in South Carolina, when he was running for his first term, our future president really asked the question, “Is our children learning?” Nobody else said it first. It’s all his.

Media commentator Paul Janensch is a former newspaper editor who teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.