Political misquotes: The 10 most famous things never actually said

Sarah Palin, the former GOP vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor

Source: The Christian Science Monitor

Written by: Eoin O’Carroll, CSMonitor.com

Captain Kirk never said “Beam me up, Scotty!” Ilsa Laszlow never said, “Play it again, Sam,” and Sherlock Holmes never said, “Elementary, my Dear Watson.”

But there these misquotes are, firmly lodged in the public consciousness, even though they appear nowhere in the original works.

The same is true for things “said” – that is, widely believed to be said but not actually said – by political figures. Sometimes a misquote is cooked up by opponents or parodists as a way of discrediting or mocking the figure. Sometimes a line is attributed to a widely admired person as a way of making it sound more authoritative, like when someone co-signs a loan. And sometimes it’s just a mistake.

Here are 10 of the most widely believed – but completely bogus – things ever “said” by political figures.

Sarah Palin, the former GOP vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor


10. “I can see Russia from my house!” – Sarah Palin

It was actually comedian Tina Fey, who was impersonating Ms. Palin on Saturday Night Live who uttered this line that is now widely attributed to the former Alaska governor.

The basis for this line comes from a September 2008 interview with ABC News’s Charles Gibson, who asked Palin what insights she had from her state being so close to Russia. She responded: “They’re our next-door neighbors, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.”

This is true. As Slate has pointed out, on a clear day, those on the Alaskan island of Little Diomede can see the Russian island of Big Diomede, located across the International Date Line some two and a half miles away. Given that Big Diomede has no permanent population, the amount of foreign policy experience one can gain from staring at it is debatable. But you can see Russian soil while standing in Alaska.

Al Gore

9. ‘I invented the Internet.’ – Al Gore

Everybody knows that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet. But like many things that everyone knows, it’s not actually true.

So where did it come from? In a March 9, 1999 interview on CNN, Wolf Blitzer asked the candidate to describe what distinguished him from his Democratic challenger, New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. Here is how the exchange went:

Blitzer: “Why should Democrats, looking at the Democratic nomination process, support you instead of Bill Bradley?”

Gore: I’ll be offering my vision when my campaign begins. And it will be comprehensive and sweeping. And I hope that it will be compelling enough to draw people toward it. I feel that it will be. But it will emerge from my dialogue with the American people. I’ve traveled to every part of this country during the last six years. During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.

It’s clumsy wording, to be sure. But it’s clear from looking at Gore’s whole statement that he never claimed to have invented the Internet, in the sense of writing code or laying fiber-optic cables. He meant only to take credit for the contributions that he made as a member of Congress, contributions that have been lauded by people like Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf, who wrote the code that serves as the foundation for the Internet.

Who is to blame for coming up with the “Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet” meme? This guy.

Two days after Gore appeared on CNN, libertarian writer Declan McCullagh posted a story on Wired News mocking him for claiming to be the “father of the Internet.” McCullagh never used the word “invented,” but it took only a few days before it mutated into its current form, helping to cement the public perception of Gore as a serial exaggerator.

Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi

8. ‘First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.’ – Mohandas Gandhi

This line is probably the best summary of Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha as you can get in 16 words. But there’s no evidence that the Great Soul ever said this.

We don’t know where this quote came from, but it is strikingly similar to something that the trade unionist Nicholas Klein gave in a 1914 address to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in Baltimore:

“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you. And that, is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.”

Portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette of France, 1775
Portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette of France, 1775

7. “Let them eat cake.” – Marie Antoinette

The wife of Louis XVI may have been out of touch, but she probably never said this. The first recorded instance of this anecdote appears in “The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau,” in which the republican philosopher writes, “I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, ‘Then let them eat pastry!'”

Rousseau’s “Confessions” was completed in 1769, when Antoinette was 14 years old and still living in Austria.


Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar



6. “Et tu, Brute?” – Julius Caesar

Nobody knows exactly what Julius Caesar’s last words were. In “The Lives of Twelve Caesars,” written 165 years after the assassination, the historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus writes:

When [Caesar] saw that he was beset on every side by drawn daggers, he muffled his head in his robe, and at the same time drew down its lap to his feet with his left hand, in order to fall more decently, with the lower part of his body also covered.

But Seutonius also notes that “some have written” that when Caesar saw his close friend Marcus Brutus rushing at him, he said in Greek, “Kai su, teknon,” a phrase that is notoriously difficult to translate but is often rendered “You too, my child?”

Some historians have taken this phrase not as one of shock at Brutus’ betrayal, but as a threat to the conspirator, as in “Your turn next, kid.”

By the time Shakespeare famously deployed “Et tu, Brute?” (in the 1599 play bearing the Roman emperor’s name), the phrase was already well known to English audiences, having appeared in a 1582 Latin play on the same subject performed at Oxford.


Dan Quayle
Dan Quayle

5. “I was recently on a tour of Latin America, and the only regret I have was that I didn’t study Latin harder in school so I could converse with those people.” –Dan Quayle

Dan Quayle has certainly uttered his share of malapropisms, solecisms, and straight-up absurdities, but he didn’t say this one. According to the indispensable urban-legend-debunking website Snopes.com, the quote originated in 1989 with Representative Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island, a Republican.

Speaking to a group of fellow Republicans, she recounted that the she and Quayle had attended an event at the Belgian embassy, where vice president Quayle complimented Schneider on her command of French (this was back when speaking French wasn’t regarded as a political liability).

Schneider then attributed to Quayle the belief that Latin was the lingua franca of Latin America, before concluding that the whole story was a joke. But many publications, including Newsday, The Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, and Time, reported Schneider’s joke as fact, further cementing in the public consciousness the perception of the vice president as an intellectual lightweight

Josef Stalin
Josef Stalin

4. “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” – Josef Stalin

There’s no proof that Stalin ever said this, but even if he did, he would likely have been quoting a 1932 essay on French humor by the German journalist, satirist, and pacifist Kurt Tucholsky.

Much like Rousseau did with his “great princess,” Tucholsky quotes a fictional diplomat from the French Ministry of Foreign affairs, speaking on the horrors of war.

“The war?” says Tucholsky’s diplomat, “I cannot find it to be so bad! The death of one man: this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths: that is a statistic!”

Niccolo Machiavelli
Niccolo Machiavelli

3. “The ends justify the means.”–

Niccolò   Machiavelli

Probably the closest Machiavelli gets to expressing this view is in Chapter XVIII of “The Prince”:

Men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

For that reason, let a prince have the credit of conquering and holding his state, the means will always be considered honest, and he will be praised by everybody because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on.

Needless to say, this is considerably more nuanced than the stick-figure consequentialism commonly attributed to the Florentine political theorist.

What’s more, it’s not clear that Machiavelli is being completely serious here. Philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau long maintained that “The Prince” was a work of satire that sought to expose the cynicism of one-man rule. This doesn’t sound that far-fetched when you consider that Machiavelli was arrested and tortured by agents of the Medici family, whose members he dedicated “The Prince” to. And there’s no denying that Machiavelli had an impish streak; during his later years, he wrote several popular – and politically stinging – satirical comedies for the stage.


Deng Xiaopin

2. “To get rich is glorious.” – Deng Xiaoping

Western journalists in search of a shorthand for China’s dramatic economic turnaround will almost invariably trot this one out. But, oddly enough, it doesn’t show up much in Chinese publications, and nobody has managed to find the original source where Deng allegedly said it.

The phrase was popularized by the writer Orville Schell in his 1984 book “To Get Rich Is Glorious: China in the ’80s.” But Schell never actually attributed the words to Deng, telling the L.A. Times’s Evelyn Iritani in 2004 that it merely “grew out of the zeitgeist” of China’s economic reforms.

That said, it’s almost impossible to verify or debunk any quotation attributed to a dead Chinese leader, as China’s Communist Party is extraordinarily adept at revising history so that it meets the political needs of the present.


John F. Kennedy
John F. Kenned

1. “I am a jelly doughnut!” – John F. Kennedy

According to the near-ubiquitous urban legend, when Kennedy stood in front of the Rathaus Schöneberg on June 26, 1963, to express his solidarity with the people of West Berlin, he should have said “Ich bin Berliner,” not “Ich bin ein Berliner.” By including the indefinite article “ein,” he likened himself to a Berliner Pfannkuchen, a type of jam-filled pastry. Somehow this blunder was missed by Robert Lochner, Kennedy’s Berlin-raised translator who provided him with the phrase, as well as by the half-million native German speakers who cheered wildly upon hearing it.

This story is bogus for three reasons:

Grammar: As University of Wisconsin, Madison, linguist Jürgen Eichhoff noted in 1993, if Kennedy had said, “Ich bin Berliner,” he would have been stating that he was literally from Berlin. The “ein” is gramatically necessary to make it clear that one is speaking in the figurative sense.

Regional cuisine: In other parts of the country, “Berliner Pfannkuchen,” is indeed shortened to just “Berliner,” but in Berlin, they just call it a “Pfannkuchen,” in the same way that a Philadelphian would just say “cheese steak.”

Context: Two days after the 9/11 attacks, Le Monde ran an editorial headlined “Nous sommes tous Américains,” and nobody took the headline to read “We are all steak tartare.” Because that would have been really dumb

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