PEROT'S FAMILIAR MISQUOTATIONS
12:00 AM, Sep 16, 1996 • By JOHN J. PITNEY
IN HIS AUGUST 11 SPEECH to the Reform party convention in Long Beach, California, H. Ross Perot said: "Never forget de Tocqueville's words when he studied our country. He said America is great because America is good. And if America ever ceases being good, America will cease being great."
Tocqueville never said that. Last year, I explained in this magazine ("The Tocqueville Fraud," Nov. 13) that the "America is great" line is something that politicians have been falsely attributing to Tocqueville for decades. The bogus quotation still lives. Richard Gephardt deployed it to defend Clinton administration policy in Bosnia, and the president himself has used it on several recent occasions, including Ron Brown's memorial service and the video clip that preceded his acceptance speech in Chicago.
In Perot's case, however, dubious quotesmanship does not stop with Alexis de Tocqueville.
"Now, I would like to learn a little bit from history before we leave today, " Perot told the Long Beach gathering, and have you listen to the words of Professor
Alexander Tytler, Scottish historian who in 1787 said, 'A democracy can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves money from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising people benefits from the treasury.' With the result that a democracy always collapses under loose fiscal policy."
Alexander Fraser Tytler (1747-1813), Lord Woodhouselee, did indeed write about democracy. But according to Respectfully Quoted, an authoritative reference book from the Library of Congress, that quotation is "unverified." Tytler actually said that there never was a republic that was not "ultimately ruled by a single will, and therefore (however bold may seem the paradox), virtually and substantially a monarchy." Perhaps you can see why Perot didn't quote the real thing.
"This goes back to Lenin's phrase, tell the people want they want to hear," Perot continued at Long Beach. "Now, isn't that sad? We've brought that over and patented it in the U.S.A." In fact, nobody ever had the patent on that phrase, least of all Lenin. Devious snake that he was, Lenin may well have uttered the phrase, but he certainly did not coin it.
"I will summarize everything I have said with these words," Perot concluded. "The budget should be balanced. The treasury should be refilled. The public debt should be reduced and the arrogance of public officials should be controlled. Do you agree with that? Thank you. As you know, those are not my words. Cicero spoke those words 2,000 years ago."
No, he didn't. In their clever book of bad quotations, They Never Said It, Paul Boller and John George identify the Cicero passage as a phony. And Respectfully Quoted agrees that the passage is almost certainly spurious.
In his August 18 acceptance speech in Valley Forge, Perot turned from political philosophy to popular culture. "Remember that song -- we had a movie a few years ago with Dolly Parton in it, The Best Little You-know- what in Texas? The sheriff had this song, 'Ooh, I love to do the little sidestep. Now you see me, now you don't and here I go.' Keep that in mind when you watch these guys" -- meaning Clinton and Dole.
In this case, Perot got it more or less right. There really was such a song, though Burt Reynolds, who played the sheriff, did not sing it. The problem here is less misquotation than plagiarism. On June 29, 1992, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed titled "A Moviegoer's Guide to Ross Perot, " which listed a number of films that were reminiscent of Perot's character. The article concluded thus:
"Finally, 'The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas' (1982) features a sequence that sums up Mr. Perot's approach to the issues. A leading character is a Texas governor (Charles Durning) who responds to reporters' questions with the responses crafted to please everybody. . . . He then sings a song that could become Mr. Perot's anthem. It is called 'Sidestep.'"
By the way, I was the author of the Wall Street Journal piece. But don't worry, Mr. Perot, I won't sue. You can quote me on that.
John J. Pitney, Jr. is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.