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Tilting at Windmills

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July 20, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

BILLIONS AND BILLIONS....Via James Fallows, here's a philosophical question. The late Sen. Everett Dirksen is famous for once saying "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money," but according to the Dirksen Center they can't find any record of him ever actually saying this. Then, in an update, they add this:

A gentleman who called The Center with a reference question relayed that he sat by Dirksen on a flight once and asked him about the famous quote. Dirksen replied, "Oh, I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so good that I never bothered to deny it."

Thus the question: If Dirksen never uttered the actual words themselves, but actively accepted credit for them once they were attributed to him, is it fair to quote him as the author? Discuss.

Kevin Drum 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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Just say "attributed to Everett Dirksen."

Posted by: Leo on July 20, 2007 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

Hell, Shakespeare never wrote any of his plays and we still credit him as the author. Discuss.

NOTE: The comment above is satire. You should have known by the body language

Posted by: zmulls on July 20, 2007 at 12:44 PM | PERMALINK

Dirksen:'Billions' quote :: Ruth:'called shot'

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on July 20, 2007 at 12:44 PM | PERMALINK

This is like, "Play it again, Sam."

It should be "attributed to" Dirksen, or he could be "quoted as saying" or the guy "who allegedly said." There's lots of short, correct English to accurately describe the situation.

Posted by: bleh on July 20, 2007 at 12:44 PM | PERMALINK

Million not Billion

From Z facts:

Senator Dirksen of Illinois supposedly said "million" and he was speaking of spending, not debt. In fact, according to Wikiquote, Senator Dirksen said he didn't say it -- he'd been mis-quoted but he liked the line so he kept using it.

Dirksen served in the House and Senate between 1932 and his death in 1969 -- years in which a million meant something.

JM note: "million" is the way I remember it as well.

Posted by: J. McConnell on July 20, 2007 at 12:45 PM | PERMALINK

Dirksen said it on public television, and I saw it live. The only thing apocryphal about this story is the story itself.

Posted by: Dilbert on July 20, 2007 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

Thus the question: If Dirksen never uttered the actual words themselves, but actively accepted credit for them once they were attributed to him, is it fair to quote him as the author? Discuss.
—Kevin Drum

At this rate we're going to get cat blogging before 10AM PDT.

Posted by: JeffII on July 20, 2007 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

"It's a slam dunk"

Posted by: Tom on July 20, 2007 at 12:54 PM | PERMALINK

See: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Posted by: martin on July 20, 2007 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

"I never said most of the things I said." -- Yogi Berra

Posted by: anonymous on July 20, 2007 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

If Dirksen never uttered the actual words themselves, but actively accepted credit for them once they were attributed to him, is it fair to quote him as the author?

Follow up question: if so, is Yogi Berra a hypothetical construct?

Posted by: frankly0 on July 20, 2007 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

Another example of this is the famous quote from bank robber Willie Sutton that he robbed banks because "that's where the money is." In one of his books, Sutton strenously denied that he ever said this. But it is still frequently attributed to him.

Posted by: Virginia on July 20, 2007 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

Just remember that Yogi was smarter than the average Berra.

Posted by: Kenji on July 20, 2007 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

Short form: "As the famous Everett Dirksen line goes . . . "
Where further explanation is called for: "Dirksen apparently did not originate the quote, but willingly adopted it after a newsman attributed it to him."
Not so very different from a line written by a speechwriter.

Posted by: Ken D. on July 20, 2007 at 1:14 PM | PERMALINK

No, a false reference should not be repeated. Our understanding of things, human world or natural world, depends on honesty and accurate descriptions.

Posted by: Neil B. on July 20, 2007 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

How many Political Animal readers does it take to screw in a light bulb? ... Anyways, Dirksen claimed to have been misquoted by a reporter, so clearly it's the media's fault - only, how do you "misquote" somebody for an entire sentence? Did Dirksen mean that the reporter mistakenly attributed the comment to him, or did the reporter completely mishear or misunderstand what Dirksen said? If it's the latter, maybe ol' Ev was talking about the legislative process, or his unpaid bar tabs around DC: "A bill in here, a bill in there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."

Posted by: csp on July 20, 2007 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

Here's my question. If, indeed, "a newspaper fella misquoted" Dirksen, why can't the Dirksen Center find a record of the quote? Even if Dirksen was misquoted, that would indicate that there is a reference in some newspaper somewhere to the (alleged) statement by the senator, wouldn't it?

Posted by: aspiezer on July 20, 2007 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

Wow, Kevin. You are really phoning it in, aren't you? I wish you censors would censor YOU, rather than just delete readers comments here you don't like. This half-assed thread would be a good perfect canddidate for deletion.

Posted by: Pat on July 20, 2007 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

One could say he was Gored by a media misquote.

Posted by: Mike on July 20, 2007 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

*yawn*

Posted by: Doofus on July 20, 2007 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

Dirksen said it on public television, and I saw it live. The only thing apocryphal about this story is the story itself.

Posted by: Dilbert on July 20, 2007 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, just like the people who insisted they saw the "Newlywed" game episode in which a guy responded with "That'd be in the butt, Bob" to the question "Where's the strangest place you've made whoopie?" It never happened, and yet people insist they saw it.

Posted by: Angela on July 20, 2007 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

Angela, I think of Dick Cavett. Everyone insists that they saw the episode where the guy dropped dead on camera, too, but it never aired.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on July 20, 2007 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

I would swear I heard Dirksen say this famous line on the nightly news when I was kid. Of course, by then he might have been repeating it since it had been already attributed to him.

Frankly, the event I remember was the only reason that I'd remember Dirksen at all since I didn't exactly follow politics at 13. It made me remark on seeing him (and Ted Kennedy who was at the time on crutches) when my family and I visited the Senate chambers a couple of years later.

Posted by: Strick on July 20, 2007 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

According to the Congressional Research Service's dictionary of quotations, the original source of the Dirksen quote is someone named John Kriegsman, a friend of Dirksen's. It further indicates that there is no documentary evidence showing that Dirksen said these words.

Most people would probably be surprised at how many famous quotations were never uttered by those to whom they are routinely attributed. A good book on this topic is "They Never Said It" by Paul Boller and John George. Snopes.com also has a lot of this sort of stuff.

Posted by: Bruce Bartlett on July 20, 2007 at 4:12 PM | PERMALINK

Okay, now I'm really confused.

The comment I remember was "half a million here, half a million there," and it was made by some congressional committee chair back in the 1980's when he cut some ridiculous $500,000 bit of pork out of the budget during the Reagan years. It was all over the media at the time, and there was no doubt that he said it.

All these years I've thought that it was an original joke, but now it appears that he was just doing a riff on Dirksen who, of course, died back when Nixon was president. Hmm...

Posted by: Oregonian on July 20, 2007 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

Somebody above already referred to "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", but here is the relevant quote anyway:

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Newspaperman Maxwell Scott to Ransom Stoddard.

I would say that that wisdom applies here.

Posted by: majun on July 20, 2007 at 4:40 PM | PERMALINK

I distinctly remember, when I was a young political fanatic, seeing Ev Dirksen say on TV, "A hundred million here, a hundred million there, pretty soon it adds up to real money." Somewhere along the line it got inflated. He was talking about spending. This was not him taking credit for it, it was him saying it, on camera.

Posted by: Richard Gilman on July 20, 2007 at 5:39 PM | PERMALINK

I also clearly remember hearing Dirksen say this quote on TV. I don't remember when, however.

Posted by: JohnN on July 20, 2007 at 8:32 PM | PERMALINK

As Voltaire said, "I did not say what you say I said, but I will repeat it forever."

Posted by: Tom Parmenter on July 20, 2007 at 10:01 PM | PERMALINK

Why not?

Voltaire never said "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Churchill never said "The only traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy and the lash."

Marie Antoinette never said "If they have no bread, let them eat cake!"

Mark Twain never said "The only two certainties in life are death and taxes." Or "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated" for that matter.

The Bible doesn't say "Money is the root of all evil."

Joseph Stalin never said "The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic."

Carl Sagan never said "Billions and billions."

So give Dirksen a little slack.

Oh, and Al Gore never said "I invented the Internet."

Posted by: pjcamp on July 20, 2007 at 11:55 PM | PERMALINK

There is so much wisdom in that quote, it must have been the distinguished Carole Mosely Braun or Dick Durbin who said it.

Posted by: Luther on July 21, 2007 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

Timothy 6:10 (King James Version):

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

Posted by: puppydog on July 21, 2007 at 9:45 PM | PERMALINK

So that's where "fake but accurate" got it's start.

Posted by: RSM on July 22, 2007 at 11:29 AM | PERMALINK

I think we can attribute the sentiment to him, since he tacitly endorsed it, but not the cleverness of the line, since he didn't come up with it.

Posted by: shoshana on July 22, 2007 at 8:16 PM | PERMALINK

Your mixing up quotation (did someone say something?) and originality (did someone make something up themselves?)

People can be quoted if they can be shown to have said something. Quotation is not proof of authorship.

Posted by: Ward on July 23, 2007 at 10:27 AM | PERMALINK

You're mixing up quotation (can someone be reliably shown to have written or said something aloud?) and authorship (did someone come up with an idea themselves?).

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