Google Book Search led me to The Quote Verifier, which concluded: "An old saw put in Harry Truman’s mouth." I promised to contact the Harry S. Truman Library directly. Sure enough, it can’t find evidence of such a witticism coming from HST himself. The nearest thing is a line in a 1975 play by the late Samuel Gallu, who, being dead, is unavailable for comment. Gallu’s Truman said: "You want a friend in life, get a dog!" Then on March 10, 1989, Maureen Dowd gave us a variant: "If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog."
Guarding Thackeray II’s credibility as a talking Afghan Hound
So what’s the origin of the variant? I’ll try to reach Ms. Dowd, whose columns I like, and see if she can enlighten us. Let’s get this straight. In The Solomon Scandals, my forthcoming Washington newspaper novel, I’ll not have my talking Afghan Hound spreading misinformation when he does his Truman send-up at the Cosmos Club. Stay turned. Perhaps Ms. Dowd can surprise us. Or did a source give her a bum steer—and if so, who? Happens to us all. I just want to keep Thackeray II believable in his act on behalf of a previrtual literacy project for Anacostia.
Meanwhile, in full except for contact information, I’ll reproduce an e-mail from Randy Sowell, a helpful archivist at the HST Library. Thanks, HSTL!
Dear Mr. Rothman:
Thank you for your telephone call of June 25. We have not been able to confirm that Truman ever said or wrote, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."
We’ve traced this quote back to Samuel Gallu’s one-man play, Give ‘Em Hell, Harry, in which the Truman character says, "You want a friend in life, get a dog!" Gallu’s play isn’t footnoted, so we have no idea where he got this saying. Apparently, it was picked up and changed by others. In March 1989, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times quoted Truman as saying, "If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog." The elder President Bush and President Clinton both used it: Bush attributing it to "some cynic, maybe . . . a former president," while Clinton referred to "that famous quote attributed to Harry Truman . . .
The truth is that the Trumans were not dog owners. It is a great piece of wisdom, and I suppose it could be authentic, but in our extensive research over the years we haven’t been able to find that Truman actually said it.
Please let me know if you have further questions.
Harry S. Truman Library