Un­rav­el­ing the mys­tery of who said what when

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Aram Bak­shian Jr. Aram Bak­shian Jr., an aide to Pres­i­dents Nixon, Ford and Rea­gan, writes widely on pol­i­tics, his­tory, gas­tron­omy and the arts.


By Gar­son O’Toole

Lit­tle A, $24.95, 383 pages

Whether he knows it or not, Gar­son O’Toole writes de­tec­tive sto­ries. His spe­cialty is de­tect­ing sus­pect quotes, sep­a­rat­ing fact from fan­tasy and stalk­ing them back to their au­then­tic sources. More of­ten than not, get­ting there is half the fun. Con­sider the case of an al­leged quote at­trib­uted to Franz Kafka and used as a chap­ter head by co­me­dian Rus­sell Brand in his 2010 best­seller, “Booky Wook 2: This Time It’s Per­sonal”:

“Don’t bend; don’t wa­ter it down; don’t try to make it log­i­cal; don’t edit your own soul ac­cord­ing to the fash­ion. Rather, fol­low your most in­tense ob­ses­sions mer­ci­lessly.”

Although it sounds just a tad too New Age mo­ti­va­tional to have flowed from the pen of a man who croaked in 1924, it does have a slightly Kafka-es­que ring to it. Only he never said it. The words ap­peared in the fore­word to a 1995 col­lec­tion of Kafka’s works and were writ­ten by the pop­u­lar hor­ror au­thor, Anne Rice. Five years af­ter they were mis-ap­pro­pri­ated and mis-at­trib­uted to Kafka, Ms. Rice would ex­plain: “I just found out some­thing hi­lar­i­ously funny. Years ago, I wrote a brief in­tro­duc­tion to a col­lec­tion of Kafka’s short sto­ries ... some­thing I said in the in­tro, about Kafka’s in­flu­ence on me has been re­cently quoted all over the in­ter­net as a quote from Kafka!”

This is just one of many cases of er­ror, de­lib­er­ate de­ceit and shame­less re­cy­cling that Mr. O’Toole runs to ground in this en­gag­ing lit­tle col­lec­tion of what to­day might be called lit­er­ary “fake news.” Another, even more widely-cir­cu­lated mis-at­tri­bu­tion, which in­spired the book’s ti­tle, is the oftre­peated myth that Ernest Hem­ing­way once made a bet that he could write a com­plete short story in six words. The words? “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

The six words ac­tu­ally do, in­deed, tell a poignant short story, sum­mon­ing up as they do the loss of a new­born life. But Hem­ing­way never said or wrote them. In four well-paced chap­ters with de­tailed doc­u­men­ta­tion, Mr. O’Toole can only of­fer us a lim­ited sam­ple of phony or stolen quotes, but he pro­vides an ex­cel­lent in­tro­duc­tion to the sub­ject.

My own first en­counter came many years ear­lier while writ­ing a long bio­graph­i­cal piece on Marshall Turenne, Louis XIV’s great­est mil­i­tary com­man­der, for His­tory To­day magazine in the 1970s. I al­ready knew that Napoleon had been falsely cred­ited with say­ing that “God al­ways fa­vors the big bat­tal­ions,” that the Prus­sian warrior King Fred­er­ick the Great had ac­tu­ally said it, but that his some­time men­tor, Voltaire had writ­ten words to that ef­fect long be­fore. Then I dis­cov­ered that, a gen­er­a­tion be­fore Voltaire, Madame de Se­vi­gne had coined the phrase in a let­ter to Marshall Turenne, the sub­ject of my ar­ti­cle: four de­grees of sep­a­ra­tion.

I also ex­pe­ri­enced how dif­fi­cult it is to sep­a­rate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to sup­pos­edly fa­mil­iar quo­ta­tions in the course of my 17 years as cre­ator and edi­tor in chief of “Amer­i­can Speaker,” an all-pur­pose guide to pub­lic speak­ing. One of my chores was to com­pile an an­nual pocket vol­ume of “100 Best Quotes” each year. In do­ing so, one had to be con­stantly on guard against coun­ter­feits.

As I knew bet­ter than most, wit­ness the fol­low­ing a con­fes­sion. Dur­ing one of my stints as a pres­i­den­tial aide, while writ­ing a speech for Jerry Ford, I de­cided to test — in a harm­less way— how eas­ily fic­tion could be folded into his­tory. I knew that, as House mi­nor­ity leader, Jerry Ford had been close to Everett Dirk­sen, his Se­nate equiv­a­lent and the elo­quent, beloved “Wiz­ard of Ooze” who had died in 1969. I had met and con­versed with Dirk­sen and knew his style well; be­sides, dead men tell no tales. So, as an ex­per­i­ment, I in­vented a Dirk­sen “quote” and in­serted it into the speech draft to see what would hap­pen. The quote, as I re­call it, had Ford vis­it­ing Dirk­sen in the hos­pi­tal and Dirk­sen de­liv­er­ing the fol­low­ing ex­hor­ta­tion: “Jerry, just do right by the Amer­i­can peo­ple and the Amer­i­can peo­ple will do right by you.”

I as­sumed that, even if the fact check­ers didn’t flag it, Pres­i­dent Ford would rec­og­nize it as a ringer. In­stead, he kept it in the fi­nal draft and de­liv­ered it with great con­vic­tion, ex­actly as I’d writ­ten it. From that day on­ward I have al­ways had my doubts about so­called “re­cov­ered” mem­o­ries. I had fab­ri­cated some­thing that sounded so much like Everett Dirk­sen that Jerry Ford, a man of to­tal in­tegrity, ac­tu­ally thought he re­mem­bered Dirk­sen say­ing it to him, and then re­peated it in a speech.

Where was Gar­son O’Toole when I needed him?

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