The Apocryphal Twain: Ron Chernow’s Encomium to The American Press At White House Correspondents Dinner Ends On A False Note

On Saturday night, while Ron Chernow was addressing the White House correspondents and their esteemed guests, I was in Brooklyn speaking to and with an inspiring group of conceptual artists on the final day of “Dirt & Debt,” sponsored by ResidencyUnlimited. Though I was there, foremost, as someone who has tried to narrate the cultural history of American finance, the co-curator who introduced me wanted to also acknowledge my connection the Center for Mark Twain Studies and so had created a slide which featured the epigram from Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Michael Lewis’s bestselling postmortem of the 2008 financial crisis, The Big Short:

Somewhat sheeepishly, I had to inform my gracious host that, in fact, Mark Twain never said such a thing. As I traced in 2016, the false attribution was popularized by Al Gore. In these moments, which are not entirely uncommon, I cannot help but ask myself, “Why do I care?” There is absolutely no reason why a viewer of McKay’s provocative film should suspect they are being misled. Is divesting them of this misconception anything more than a narcissistic display of my own idiosyncratic expertise? There are far more urgent falsehoods to be reckoned with. I could tell that the curator was a little disappointed. She liked the quote, and liked even more the symbolic way in reconciled the seemingly disparate strains of my scholarship. I saw it. I was flattered that she had engaged enough with my work to see it to. Believe me, it would be preferable for me if it were so. It just isn’t.

Back in my hotel room later that night, I logged into the backend of MarkTwainStudies.org, as I often do at the end of the day, just to see what our traffic looked like. It was surprisingly robust for the weekend, much of it directed to another “Apocryphal Twain” post I wrote on the occasion of the 2018 midterm elections. This one traced the origins of a scatatological assessment of what politicians are typically full of.

It took very little searching to surmise that the traffic was driven by the invocation of this aphorism by Ron Chernow at the conclusion of his speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner earlier in the evening, a speech which was already being widely praised. “As we head into election season, I will leave you with one final gem from Twain,” Chernow said, “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reasons.”

I was exhausted, but I lay there watching and rewatching the last several minutes of Chernow’s speech. Much of what he said I could sympathize with, but knowing that he had ended on a false note (in fact, a couple of them), the overarching message rang hollow. If America’s leading historical biographer can’t be bothered to properly source the quote he chooses to conclude what he knows will probably be the most-watched speech he will ever deliver, what hope is there of defeating the “relentless campaign against the very credibility of the news media” which he rightly describes.

Just a few moments earlier in the speech, Chernow had brought the room to its feet by calling them “heirs to a grand crusading tradition that dates back to Ida B. Wells…this is a glorious tradition, you folks are part of it, and we can’t have politicians trampling on it with impunity, both here and by autocratic regimes abroad.” A little pandering, sure, but I can get on board with this type of panegyric to the press, in part because it doesn’t rely, as Chernow elsewhere does, upon reductive characterizations of journalists as high-minded arbiters of truth and faultless guardians of facts. The tradition of U.S. journalism that includes Ida Wells, Ida Tarbell, and others who Chernow names, is propelled by a “crusading” impulse.

This tradition is not above using polemic, parody, poetry, and many other genres and rhetorical devices which depend upon journalists’ creative and critical acumen, not just their ability to navigate documents and report what’s happening “on the ground.” The mythic figures of American journalism – Joseph Pulitzer, for instance – habitually eluded details which were inconvenient to the case they were making, published insufficiently substantiated claims, and engaged in heated debates with other public figures that were rooted at least as much in their personal beliefs as the public’s interests. For those of us who spend ample time in the archives of U.S. newpapers, this observation is banal, and not at all bothersome. It is not tantamount to shouting #FakeNews or underestimating how integral the fourth estate is to civil society. Good journalists are not always “fair-minded” and “accurate.” Nor are the politicians and other powerful individuals and institutions who they cover and occasionally crusade against. Via these crusades power is forced to account for itself before the vigilance of a democratic citizenry. That’s the real credibility of the news media and the service they perform in civil society.

Chernow builds his panegyric to the press around facts: “Facts are the foot-soldiers of our respective professions. They do the hard marching and should wear no ideological coloring.” By reifying the myths of journalistic rigor and objectivity, Chernow and the reporters who applaud him are setting for themselves a standard which is both unachievable (because truth is hard) and unprecedented. They are complicit in creating an environment in which every mistake, every retraction, and every misattribution, no matter how trivial, gives that campaign being waged against their credibility more fuel. They can be foisted on their own petard. You don’t get to claim entry in a “glorious tradition” of fact-worshipping and then abdicate the basic fact-checking of statements that happen to be flattering to you, resonate with your worldview, or allow you to appropriate the high-approval ratings of a mythic figure like Mark Twain. Stop fetishizing facts. Perhaps the more potent position, certainly the one more reconcilable with Twain’s legacy, is to resuscitate and revere the historical overlap between muckraking journalists and persuasive realist fiction-writers.

Twain offered his own panegyric to the press in response to Matthew Arnold’s attacks on American journalism in 1888:

“Remind the world that ours is a useful trade, a worthy calling: that with all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one speciality, and it is constant to it – the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence; and that whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.

“Mark Twain Accepts” Hartford Courant June 29, 1888

I remain steadfastly convinced that if you’re willing to go digging for it, the stuff he actually said is always preferable to the weak witticisms of others we attempt to spruce up by imagining them coming out of his mouth.

The Apocryphal Twain: “Politicians are like diapers.”

There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms was common enough in the 20th century. It has only increased with the popularization of digital media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.

Mark Twain did not hold politicians in high esteem. He was particularly spiteful towards the legislative branch in novels like The Gilded Age (1873) and short stories like “Cannibalism in the Cars” (1868). “There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress,” he wrote in Puddn’head Wilson (1894). In “What is Man?” (1906) he speculated that “Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.” Given the viciousness of his real attacks on elected officials, spanning across his whole career, it is probably no surprise that the corpus of Twain apocrypha includes many pot-shots at politicians.

On the eve of what is anticipated to be one of the highest-turnout midterm elections in US history, one such aphorism is proving particularly popular:

While he might have appreciated the sentiment, it is pretty easy to determine that this is not something Twain actually said. Not only does the quote fail to appear in his published works, nor in his many accessible private writings, I can’t even find an instance of Twain using the term diaper, except in a joke about the “Royal Diaperer” in The Prince & The Pauper (1891). That he would only invoke the term in a novel which is, in part, a send-up of British aristocracy, is telling. The word diaper was not part of the common parlance of America during most of Twain’s life. As the following Google ngram shows, diaper did not supplant the nappy (or napkin) in American vocabulary until late in the 19th century, and did not achieve anything rivaling its widespread contemporary usage until the second half of the 20th.

Rather than Twain, the man most responsible for the popularity the aphorism now enjoys in probably Robin Williams. In the film Man of the Year (2006), Williams’s character utters the lines, “Remember this ladies and gentleman: It’s an old phrase, basically anonymous, politicians are a lot like diapers, they should be changed frequently, and for the same reasons. Keep that in mind the next time you vote.”

This speech not only appears near the climax of the film, but also figured prominently in the publicity campaign surrounding the film’s release in the Fall of 2006. Predictably, the quote started appearing regularly on social media soon thereafter. However, I can find no instance of its being attributed to Twain until two years later, first in a series of tweets by Dr. Larisa Varenkova. It was retweeted several times, then bounced around social media in relative obscurity until, in September of that year, Mike Hanes, a motivational speaker with tens of thousands of followers, took it upon himself to start tweeting it multiple times every day from two separate accounts. This continued for several months, and probably marks the point after which the misattribution to Twain became widely accepted.

But who is actually responsible for this nugget of bawdy political wit?

It seems likely that Barry Levinson, the screenwriter for Man of the Year, got it from Paul Harvey. Williams’s character is populist political commentator with folksy charm, which is also an accurate description of Harvey, whose syndicated “The Rest of the Story” was a staple of ABC Radio for more than half a century. Obituaries for Harvey in the New York Times and Forbes following his death in 2009 give him credit for a very similar aphorism targeting “occupants of the White House” and it also appears in newspaper accounts of his public appearances from the 1990s.

But Harvey himself, in a syndicated editorial from June 1994, credits the exact quote – “Politicians, like diapers, should be changed often. And for the same reasons.” – to Tom Blair, a longtime columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Harvey likely got this attribution from a 1993 issue of Reader’s Digest in which the aphorism was excerpted with Blair’s byline.

But, when one tracks down the article which Reader’s Digest quoted from, one discovers that Blair himself was quoting a local candidate on the Libertarian ticket. John Wallner used the line repeatedly during his unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat in 1992, and thus it found its way into several major papers, including the Los Angeles Times, which dubbed it “the best line in a losing cause.”

One can’t help wondering whether Wallner would’ve still endorsed this catchphrase had he won.

Be kind to each other this Election Day…if not to your Congressmen.