NPR, March 25, 2010
Honest, Mr. President: Abe Never Said It
by John J. Pitney Jr.
John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. With Joseph M. Bessette, he is the author of American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship.
In his remarks to Democratic lawmakers the day before they passed the health care bill, President Obama said: “I was tooling through some of the writings of some previous presidents, and I came upon this quote by Abraham Lincoln: ‘I am not bound to win, but I’m bound to be true. I’m not bound to succeed, but I’m bound to live up to what light I have.’ ”
The Lincoln quotation was stirring. It was also bogus. There is no documentary evidence that Lincoln ever said any such thing.
Obama is hardly the first speaker to pass counterfeit prose. A couple of entertaining reference books — They Never Said It by Paul Boller and John George, and The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes — are full of fake quotations and mis-attributions that have come into common usage. The process starts when an honest mistake or flight of fancy leads to the publication of a spurious passage. Seeing it in print, writers and speakers assume it to be genuine and repeat it. Then they copy one another, and the dubious words spread like a computer virus.
It is understandable that many of these cases involve Lincoln. By quoting the Great Emancipator’s words, public figures try to capture some of his magic for themselves. The temptation to touch the hem of his garment is so great that they sometimes get sloppy about fact-checking and grab for a knockoff.
That temptation crosses partisan and ideological lines. President Reagan used the “bound to be true” line several times. (One may guess that President Obama’s speechwriter got it from a Reagan speech and incorrectly took it for granted that the Gipper’s staff had sourced it.) After his presidency, at the 1992 Republican convention, Reagan quoted this favorite of anti-tax groups: “You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich.” Lincoln never used those words. They came from William Boetcker, a prominent minister of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Boetcker did not credit Lincoln with the lines, but some of his conservative admirers did.