"If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog"—but don’t attribute the quote to Truman if Googled info is right

imageThe Solomon Scandals, the only Washington newspaper novel that ends with a talking Afghan Hound doing a Harry Truman send-up at the Cosmos Club, has made the popular GalleyCat blog.

Hey, thanks, Cat. Thackeray II, unlike many canines, is a big feline fan.

The “Get a dog” lowdown

Now some more news, especially for writers of media-related novels.

In Thackeray II’s Truman act, my favorite line is, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” The only problem is that Truman never said those words, if a book of quotes is right, despite a bunch of references in the press.

I discovered the above today while double-checking Scandals via Google Book Search.

Accuracy, accuracy!

image So in the cause of accuracy I’m leaving Thack’s gem in Scandals while adding an essential footnote to Prof. Rebecca Kitiona-Fenton’s epilogue, written in the late 21st century:

“Even Thackeray’s omniscience has its limits. As determined by my researchers at the Institute for Previrtual Studies, the actual quote was: ‘You want a friend in life, get a dog.’ Worse, the words seem to have been put in Truman’s mouth by Samuel Gallu for his play Give ‘Em Hell, Harry! (1975). Source of this information is The Quote Verifier (Macmillan, 2006), by Ralph Keyes, who relied on archivists at the Truman Library. I have asked Thackeray to modify his act and have suggested to the New York Times that it correct old references.”

Returning to ’08

image Now back to the year 2008. Just to be sure, I’m going to phone the Truman Library. People ranging from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to former president Bill Clinton will be wrong if Keyes is right. Hey, I enjoy Dowd’s work and hope she gets a funny column out of the Truman quote, whatever he really said or didn’t. With almost any blog, vexingly bereft of copy editors, we’re in sausage factory territory, so I won’t claim infallibility at this end.

Meanwhile, if nothing else, my little discovery is a great testimonial to the power of Google Book Search and all the more reason to hope that a TeleRead-style national digital library system can exist someday to carry digitization to the max. Too bad e-books can’t reliably link to specific places within each other; it’s time for the e-book standards setters to take these matters more seriously, while clueful librarians keep plugging away. Another lesson is the need for Google, publishers and authors to make peace in the copyright wars, so it’s easier for writers and talking Afghan Hounds to get their facts right.

Usual disclosure: I’m a very small Google shareholder.

Related: Google Book Search: A powerful tool for investigating phrase origins and two other TeleBlog items by Garson O’Toole.

6 Comments on "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog"—but don’t attribute the quote to Truman if Googled info is right

  1. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. After all, the buck stops here!

  2. Hey, Fred, let’s hope THOSE are authentic. :-) Thanks. David

  3. Garson O'Toole // June 25, 2008 at 9:09 pm //

    Thanks to David Rothman for mentioning my earlier TeleRead articles about quotations.

    It happens that the origins of both the Truman quotes alluded to in Fred Kiesche’s comment are disputed. Yet the fact that Truman used the quotes is not really disputed.

    The Yale Book of Quotations (YBQ) attributes the earliest documented use of the phrase “If you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen” to Harry Vaughan, U.S. presidential advisor and general, 1893-1981. It says the phrase first appeared in Time magazine in April 1952.

    The phrase is often attributed to Truman and he did say it, but Truman does not claim that he created it. In a speech in December 1952 Truman said he heard it from a “colleague on the Jackson County Court”. This datum also comes from the YBQ which cites a biography of Truman by Wolfgang Mieder.

    “The Buck Stops Here” did appear as a sign on Truman’s desk according to multiple references. But the YBQ says that it has an older history, and it cites a photo of a sign with the quote on an Army Colonel’s desk that appeared in a newspaper in October 1942.

    Calvin Coolidge said a related phrase “I won’t pass the buck” in 1920 according to a 1924 reference cited in the YBQ. There is more information on both phrases in the YBQ which unfortunately is not online.

    A quick Google Book search on the phrases using upper limits on the dates yields too many spurious hits with incorrect chronological information to be quickly useful. Google Book search is a powerful tool but all the results it gives have to be reviewed and cross-checked carefully.

  4. IIRC, I saw that sign at the desk in the Truman library (great place to visit; they have a recreation of the Oval Office!).

    No commentary intended on whether or not Truman said any of that; he just happens to be one of my favorite presidents, is all.

  5. “If you can’t stand the heat” and “The buck stops here” are also discussed in THE QUOTE VERIFIER.

  6. After reading historical novels wherein it was a common practice to hunt deer by running hounds then the following seems more than likely: a hunter posted on a stand awaiting the buck being pursued by hounds would likely have used the phrase “the buck stops here” as a form of bragging.

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