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.

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