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.

“The Obscenest Picture The World Possesses”: A Twainian Homage to John Berger, George Michael, David Bowie, Prince

On exhibit on the terrace level of Elmira College’s Gannett-Tripp Library is an oil painting titled Head of Titian’s Venus 2015 by Elmira artist Dan Reidy. The large scale oil painting references the famous Venus of Urbino, a 1538 oil painting by Italian master Titian that was described by Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad (1880) as “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses.” Unlike Twain, Reidy focuses on Venus’s gaze, rather than her overt sexuality. But does Twain’s quote simply suggest he held Puritanical beliefs about nudity and specifically in this case, about masturbation?

Head of Titian's Venus 2015 - Dan Reidy
Dan Reidy, Head of Titian’s Venus 2015, Oil on Canvas, 52″ x 60″

Twain’s further commentary in A Tramp Abroad is infrequently cited. His protest was less about the questionable sexual activity of Venus and more about his own envy of artists who had license to depict controversial subject matter. Twain harbored a lifelong fear of the public condemnation he might face were he to express all his uncensored opinions. Contrasting the prudish literary tastes of his own time with the perpetual admiration of Renaissance painting, he says,

If I ventured to describe that attitude, there would be a fine howl – but there the Venus lies, for anybody to gloat over that wants to – and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and Art has its privileges. I saw young girls stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gaze long and absorbedly at her; I saw aged, infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her – just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world – just to hear the unreflecting average man deliver himself about my grossness and coarseness, and all that. The world says that no worded description of a moving spectacle is a hundredth part as moving as the same spectacle seen with one’s own eyes – yet the world is willing to let its son and its daughter and itself look at Titian’s beast, but won’t stand a description of it in words. Which shows that the world is not as consistent as it might be. (A Tramp Abroad )

Venus of Urbino (1538) - Titian
Titian, Venus of Urbino (1538), Oil on Canvas, 47″ x 65″ [Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy]
Twain’s judgment that “Art” legitimizes “the pathetic interest” we know today as “the male gaze” predates by nearly a century John Berger’s analysis of male privilege in his famous 1972 book Ways of Seeing. Twain exemplifies what Berger calls “the surveyor” as he not just looks, but judges the “surveyed.” Berger is at his Marxist best when he levels the hierarchy of the classical nude with images of women in girlie magazines. Specifically, he asserts facial expressions of women have not changed over time in imagery, describing the woman’s look, whether 16th century or 20th century, as “responding with calculated charm to the man whom she imagines looking at her – although she doesn’t know him. She is offering up her femininity as the surveyed” (55).

By focusing on Venus’s coyly inviting stare, Reidy has chosen not to exploit the sensational sexual suggestion of masturbation, as Twain does, but instead makes us grapple with thgendered submissive attitude seen in Venus’s facial expression. Berger advises us to be aware that men and women learn about gender expectations through this kind of depiction. He explains that this “way of seeing” women has a very long history:

The essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from men – not because the feminine is different from the masculine – but because the “ideal” spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. If you have any doubt that this is so, make the following experiment. Choose…an image of a traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man. Either in your mind’s eye or by drawing on the reproduction. Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer. (64)

Contemporary applications of Berger’s test demonstrate that there may be shifting expectations. Women still overwhelmingly wear the “come hither” mask, but men are beginning to as well, as we see in comparing the following fragance advertisements.

Rihanna Rogue Love Ad Campaign
Rihanna Rogue Love Ad Campaign


Yves Saint Laurent M7 Ad Campaign [Click Image to read about associated controversy]
Yves Saint Laurent M7 Ad Campaign [Click Image to read about associated controversy]
How do we account for this “feminization” in advertising that might be described in some quarters, using Twain’s sentiment, as “vile and obscene”? We could surmise that cosmetic corporations merely wish to expand their consumer base, seeing men’s vanity as an untapped source of revenue. Why not market the stereotypically feminine concern for “desirability” to the remainder of the population? Others may believe this gender-bending trend reflects a half century of pop culture flirtation with androgyny. PBS Newshour’s Corinne Segal notes in her memorial to David Bowie that “For a brief time, mostly in 1968, unisex was everywhere, and with it came a fair amount of confusion in the media.” “It’s not just the way we look; the whole male-female relationship is confused,” columnist Everett Mattlin wrote for the Chicago Tribune in 1968. “In novels, plays, movies, TV — all, presumably, reflecting life itself — men are weak, fumbling, impotent, while women are strong, decisive, domineering…All is topsy-turvy in a neuter world.” Segal praises Bowie for transgressing the established gender norms, especially with his 1972 alien androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust. She writes that for Bowie “gender lines were unimportant in the face of a strong personal style.”

The music industry lost two other notable “gender transgressors” in 2016: Prince and George Michael. It is an easy task to visit Google images and find photos of these musicians wearing the expression of the “surveyed,” offering themselves up to us with the slightly coquettish tilt of the head. Compare their flirtatious expressions to Reidy’s and Titian’s Venus in the grid below.

Gender Bending Gaze
Clockwise from Top Right: Boy George, Titian’s Venus, Prince, George Michael, Reidy’s Venus, David Bowie

The ongoing relevance of the double standards identified by Twain and Berger, and interrogated by Bowie, Prince, and Michael, is further highlighted by recent controversies associated with Donald Trump’s regressive, objectifying “locker room talk.” In contrast to such blustering displays of male chauvinism, these gentle, contemporary examples of the “surveyed sans gender” do not evoke weakness in men, but instead express a “desirability” that is appropriate for people of all genders and sexual orientations. It seems like Twain would’ve viewed such changes in social mores not as obscenity, but as healthy free expression, and been envious of the permissive celebratory cultural environment which followed him.