Of Deathless Remarks…

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He used it again in his speech on being officially notified of his nomination for the Presidency at Marion, Ohio, on July 22, 1920, and yet again in his inaugural address on the Capitol steps on March 4, 1921. (“…I must utter my belief in the divine inspiration of the founding fathers.”)

Since Harding now gets into the quotation dictionaries, if at all, chiefly on the strength of his neologism “normalcy” or in connection with the notorious “smoke-filled room,” the revelation that “Founding Fathers” is his should raise him a considerable notch in future reference works. Not every President leaves an enduring phrase behind him. (Curiously, it was an Englishman who put the Library of Congress researchers on the right track. They found that Sir Denis Brogan, in his Politics in America (Harper, 1954), had correctly attributed the phrase to Harding. When I queried him as to how he had managed this feat when no one in America, apparently, could have done it, Sir Denis replied: “I arrived in the U.S.A. in September of 1925 when the memory of W. G. H. was fresh if not fragrant, and the information may have been common knowledge then. I may have picked it up by osmosis.”)

Perhaps Harding’s connection with his coinage was lost from sight because it seemed so unlikely. “Harding,” said H. L. Mencken, “writes the worst English I have ever encountered; it reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.” His usual oratorical style is best described by a word he himself used—“bloviate”—which meant to make bloated speeches full of political clichés. Finding an imperishable phrase in a Harding speech was as unexpected as finding a pearl in a meatball, an event so unlikely that people, including scholars, refused to believe it happened and quickly forgot that it did. The public, usually guided by the press, tends to displace reality with drama and fitness in these matters. What more fitting, historically, than for General,John J. Pershing, the most soldierly of soldiers, to step ashore in France at the head of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I and say: “Lafayette, we are here”?

The fact is, though, that the words were spoken as the tag of a speech at Lafayette’s tomb in Picpus Cemetery, Paris, on July 4, 1917, by an officer otherwise unknown to fame, a Lieutenant Colonel Charles E. Stanton, the chief disbursing officer for the A.E.F. Similarly, it wasn’t Pétain, the defender of Verdun, who said: “ Ils ne passeront pas! ” though it should have been. It was his subordinate, Robert Georges Nivelle, an admirable phrasemaker but a catastrophic general.

The list of famous sayings attributed to the wrong persons is a long one. It was Jefferson, not Washington, who warned against “entangling alliances.” It was not Horace Greeley who first trumpeted “Go West, young man!” but J. B. L. Soule, the editor of the Terre Haute Express , whose slogan Greeley merely popularized. And it was not Franklin D. Roosevelt who began a speech to the Daughters of the American Revolution with the words “Fellow immigrants.…” Though this keeps getting reprinted and will probably never be scotched, it was never uttered. It is, once again, the work of a ghostly unknown who distilled it out of a longer and more labored formulation that F. D. R. used.

With increasingly accurate and instantaneous methods of recording and reproducing speech, the role of the posthumous and retroactive ghost writer, to whom we owe so many of our famous sayings, is diminishing, if not disappearing. In our technological time there is no longer as much possibility for the phraseology of statesmen and leaders to be touched up, altered, and improved once the speech or saying is uttered. In most instances both are firmly cemented into the record at once, just as they are delivered. The ghostwriting must now be done in advance and is generally inferior to the ex post facto variety, probably for the same reason that the best lines and wittiest cracks always occur to one after the situation that should have prompted them is past. And freehand invention, no matter how inspired, is no longer possible. Nobody in the future will be able to make up a speech for, say, Dwight D. Eisenhower and get it accepted into the record, as William Wirt did for Patrick Henry or, going farther back in time, as Thucydides did for Pericles in the case of the classic Funeral Oration.

The temper of the time itself is working against the creation of great sayings. Rhetoric and eloquence are out of fashion and are almost everywhere regarded with either suspicion or derision, and usually both. The times being rigidly pragmatic, most men who find themselves in heroic situations make a point of being as hardheaded and unromantic about it as possible. When Edmund Hillary descended from his conquest of Mount Everest in May of 1953, ne announced his victory by saying: “We knocked the bastard off.” The man who becomes celebrated for daring and high enterprise today is likely to be a skilled technician of some sort, and a flair for language is seldom coupled with technical proficiency. So our astronauts, while performing feats that astound the world, are themselves liable to react with expressions like “Boy, what a ride!” (Alan Shepard) or, if really stirred to their depths, “Man, this is the greatest. Charlie babe, it’s fantastic!” (from the Apollo 10 spacecraft).

But the actual landing on the moon, in contrast to the preliminary whirls around it, did produce a memorable saying. It also provided, as an unexpected side effect, a memorable instance of how confusion and misquotation can distort even the most historic remark right at its birth.