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Ask Not Where This Quote Came From
Even when he did cite his sources, Kennedy routinely got them wrong. For example, "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality" is a quotation he attributed to Dante. Dante did say some things about hell, but this wasn't among them. On another occasion, Kennedy quoted Emerson as having said, "What we are speaks louder than what we say," a condensation of Emerson's actual thought: "Don't say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary."
Journalist Sander Vanocur said Kennedy liked to quote British statesman Lord Morley's observation that "Life in politics is one continuous choice between second bests." No source can be found for this attribution. To make the point that we must plan not just for our time but for posterity, Kennedy would often quote "the great French Marshal Lyautey" who, he said, once asked his gardener to plant a tree. When the gardener cautioned that the tree wouldn't mature for a century, JFK said the marshal replied, "In that case there is no time to lose, plant it this afternoon." Library of Congress researchers couldn't verify this story.
Nor could they find in Nikita Khrushchev's speeches or writings, "The survivors will envy the dead," an observation about nuclear war that Kennedy attributed to the Soviet premier during a 1963 news conference. (Three years before Kennedy so quoted Khrushchev, military strategist Herman Kahn had published a book on nuclear war in which he repeatedly asked, "Will the living envy the dead?")
But Kennedy did launch, if not originate, a number of comments that became standard parts of our lexicon. In a 1961 executive order, he referred to the need for "affirmative steps." This was the precursor to what came to be known as affirmative action. JFK also was the first U.S. official to talk about "light at the end of the tunnel" with reference to Vietnam, though the phrase was hardly original to him. And in a mid-1963 speech, Kennedy referred to the economic notion that "a rising tide lifts all boats," prefacing this thought with the words: "As they say on my own Cape Cod . . ."
Without claiming they were his own words, Kennedy put a number of quotations into play that were subsequently attributed to him. When taking responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he said, "There's an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan." (This saying had appeared in the published 1942 diary of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's foreign minister, then in the 1951 movie "The Desert Fox.") Similarly, in a 1961 speech, Kennedy said, "Somebody once said that Washington was a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency," another now routinely credited to him, though of unknown origin.
One quip by JFK that has no known antecedent is his comment at a 1962 White House dinner for Nobel Prize winners: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House -- with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. told author Thurston Clarke that his draft of Kennedy's speech for this dinner had included a tortured passage on Jefferson's many talents and achievements, and that Kennedy himself came up with the pithier, more memorable remark.
Ralph Keyes is the author of "The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When," out this month from St. Martin's Press.