Ask Not Where This Quote Came From

By Ralph Keyes
Sunday, June 4, 2006

Political figures routinely get their quotations wrong. No modern politician has stood out quite so much in this regard as John F. Kennedy. JFK loved to pepper his speeches and public statements with quotations. This not only perked up his prose, but improved his press by giving him an air of erudition. Kennedy was also, however, a misquoter of eloquence, who showed how creative and unreliable memory can be when using comments others have uttered.

Kennedy's main resource for quotations was his own memory and the notebook in which he'd jotted quotations and other material for years -- some drawn from books he'd read, but most from his mind. According to his speechwriter Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy "was the chief source of his own best quotations." As a result, he was an endless source of half-remembered quotations that his aides and Library of Congress staff members scurried to try to confirm.

With such a haphazard approach, JFK was not always as knowledgeable as he tried to sound. Before his wife, Jacqueline, corrected him, Kennedy combined lines by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Frost to conclude some of his speeches by saying:

I'll hitch my wagon to a star (Emerson)

But I have promises to keep (Frost)

And miles to go before I sleep (Frost)

Even though JFK routinely garbled his quotations, it took us years to figure this out. Meanwhile, the young president launched any number of misworded, misattributed or completely mystifying quotations into the public conversation that have stuck around to this day.

The most glaring example is "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing," which Kennedy attributed to British philosopher Edmund Burke and which recently was judged the most popular quotation of modern times in a poll conducted by editors of "The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations." Even though it is clear by now that Burke is unlikely to have made this observation, no one has ever been able to determine who did.

Some of Kennedy's most famous phrases turned out to have long, unacknowledged pedigrees. "The New Frontier," a phrase in Kennedy's 1960 acceptance speech that he later used to describe his domestic agenda, was the title of a chapter in a 1936 book written by Sen. Alfred M. Landon (Kan.), who ran for president as a Republican that year. Two years before that, Franklin D. Roosevelt's future vice president, Henry Wallace, had written a book titled "New Frontiers."

The most stirring line of JFK's inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," echoed similar exhortations made by many others, including Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and President Warren G. Harding, who told the 1916 Republican convention, "We must have a citizenship less concerned about what the government can do for it and more anxious about what it can do for the nation."

The inspiration for Kennedy's famous observation, "For of those to whom much is given, much is required" can be found in Luke 12:48: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required."

And when the United States made Winston Churchill an honorary citizen in 1963, Kennedy said of Britain's former prime minister: "He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle." Nine years earlier, journalist Edward R. Murrow had said of Churchill, "He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended."

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