June 12, 2018

The origin of the proverbial political “smoke-filled room”


Although smoking is either banned or not tolerated in most meetings today, the idea of a meeting of power brokers making deals behind closed doors “in a smoke-filled room” is still a well-known political image and metaphor.

The now-idiomatic “smoke-filled room” was embedded in our language by an Associated Press article filed on June 12, 1920 by reporter Kirke L. Simpson.

That story dealt with the nomination of former Ohio Governor Warren G. Harding as the Republican Party’s candidate in the 1920 Presidential election.

My grade school and high school history books didn’t delve into the backroom machinations leading to Harding’s nomination.

But like other fans of the HBO television series Boardwalk Empire, I learned a bit about the real life characters involved and the wheeling and dealing that went on from watching some of the show’s Season 1 episodes.

Those episodes suggest that Atlantic City political boss Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by actor Steve Buscemi) was instrumental in swinging the nomination to Harding.

While that may be one of a number of fictionalized plot elements in the series, Harding’s nomination was the result of some hard-nosed political deal-making.

In the days leading up to June 12, delegates to the Republican Convention in Chicago had reached an impasse.

Neither of the two leading candidates — former U.S. Army General Leonard Wood and Illinois Governor Frank O. Lowden — could gain a majority of delegate votes.

So, on the night of June 11, a small group of top Republican party officials held a private meeting in Suite 404 in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel.

Smoke from their cigars filled the room as they discussed the latest ideas on how to break the deadlock.

Sometime after midnight, they decided to push through the nomination of Harding as a compromise candidate who could win in the key state of Ohio and would be friendly to the Captains of Industry.

The AP story filed by Kirke Simpson that morning famously said:

      “Harding of Ohio was chosen by a group of men in a smoke-filled room early today as Republican candidate for President.”

Simpson is often credited with coining the phrase “smoke-filled room,” at least in its political sense.

Some sources say that he got the phrase from Harding’s campaign manager, Harry Daugherty (played by actor Christopher McDonald in Boardwalk Empire).

Daugherty allegedly predicted in remarks to reporters:

“The convention will be deadlocked, and after the other candidates have gone their limit, some twelve or fifteen men, worn out and bleary-eyed for lack of sleep, will sit down about two o'clock in the morning, around a table in a smoke-filled room in some hotel and decide the nomination.  When that time comes, Harding will be selected.”

Safire's Political Dictionary, written by the late, great political quote maven William Safire, notes that Daugherty denied saying this.

Either way, the Kirke Simpson’s news story usually gets credit for making “a smoke-filled room” a common political term.

Simpson went on to win the Pulitzer Prize two years later for his series of articles about the burial and tomb of “The Unknown Soldier.”

Harding went on to be elected President of the United States, though he died in office a few years later, after a series of scandals made him a frequent nominee for lists of the worst presidents in history.


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June 02, 2018

Reports of Mark Twain’s quip about his death are greatly misquoted...

Mark Twain, the report of my death
In May 1897, the great American humorist, novelist and social critic Samuel Clemens — best known by his pen name, Mark Twain — was in London. It was one of the stops on a round-the-world speaking tour he’d embarked on in 1895.

He hoped to use the fees from speaking engagements to pay off the considerable debts he owed in the United States, due to a series of unsuccessful investments and publishing ventures.

While Twain was in London, someone started a rumor that he was gravely ill. It was followed by a rumor that he had died.


According to a widely-repeated legend, one major American newspaper actually printed his obituary and, when Twain was told about this by a reporter, he quipped:


      “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

 
Another common variation of the line uses the words “…have been greatly exaggerated.” 


Sometimes the quip is given as “Reports of my death are grossly exaggerated.”
 
In point of fact, all such commonly-heard versions using “greatly exaggerated” and “grossly exaggerated” are misquotes.


It is true that in late May of 1897 the English correspondent for the New York Journal, Frank Marshall White, contacted Twain in London to inquire about his health.


The editors of the newspaper had sent a cable White on May 28, asking him to get Twain’s response to reports that he was on his deathbed in England.


White relayed this request to Twain. On May 31, 1897, Twain wrote down his response and sent it to White.


The next day, White wrote an article that quoted from Twain’s letter. On June 2, 1897, the article was published in the New York Journal. It said, in part:

     Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a Journal representative informed him today of the report in New York that he was dying in poverty in London...
     The great humorist, while not perhaps very robust, is in the best of health. He said:
     “I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness.
     The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
The origin of the more familiar misquote versions of Twain’s response seems to be the popular biography of Twain written by Albert Bigelow Paine.

Paine’s book was published in 1912, two years after Twain’s death. It includes what is apparently Paine’s own embellished variation of the story about Twain’s death quip.


In Chapter 197 of the biography, Paine said a young reporter had “ferreted out” Twain in London after being assigned to follow up on rumors that the famed humorist was “lying at the point of death.”


According to Paine, the newspaper had sent a cable to the reporter ordering him to send back a five hundred 500-word story if Twain was ill, or a thousand word story if Twain was dead.


Paine claimed that upon being shown the cable, Twain “smiled grimly” and told the young reporter:


      “You don’t need as much as that. Just say the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.”

 
Most scholarly books of quotations now use or include the quote recorded in the New York Journal article, taken from Twain’s letter to Frank Marshall White.


However, Paine’s “grossly exaggerated” version and “The report of my death has been greatly exaggerated,” which seems to be a colloquial variation of Paine’s line, are better known and commonly assumed to be actual quotes by Twain.


Of course, as Twain wrote in his book Following the Equator, published in November 1897:


       “It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive.”

 

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May 27, 2018

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall…”


When Columbia Records released the first, self-titled album by Bob Dylan in 1962 it went largely unnoticed by the general public. Only about 5,000 copies were sold at the time.

But Columbia music producer John Hammond, who signed Dylan to the label, had faith in the young folk singer.

He ignored the jibes of other music executives who dubbed Dylan “Hammond’s Folly” and, in eight sessions strung out over the next twelve months, he recorded a second album with Dylan for Columbia.

That album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released on May 27, 1963, three days after Dylan’s 22nd birthday.

It’s now considered one of the greatest and most influential albums in American music history.

The Freewheelin’ LP includes what remain some of Dylan’s best-known songs, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Girl from the North Country,” “Masters of War,” “Don't Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

“Blowin’ In The Wind” became the most famous song from the album. But the one that stuck in my mind even more when I first listened to the album in 1963 was “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

The song’s foreboding title, from a phrase in the chorus, was memorable in itself and has since been widely cited and repurposed.

I believe it struck a special chord with kids from the Baby Boom generation, like me.

We grew up at a time when a nuclear war between the US and the USSR seemed inevitable.

In elementary school, we practiced “duck and cover” drills and watched public service films like the one at right, in which a narrator and “Bert the Turtle” helpfully explain what to do when the A-bombs start falling.

Bert told us: “The flash of an atomic bomb can come at any time, no matter where you may be...When there is a flash, duck and cover, and do it fast!”

It seems a bit humorous now. But back then, during the height of the Cold War years, the possibility of an atomic Armageddon was a serious and constant fear.

Movies, TV shows, books, magazine stories and politically-oriented songs of the era helped stoke that fear by portraying what a nuclear holocaust and the hellish aftermath would be like.

That frightening scenario is also conjured up by “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

Bob Dylan singing Had Rain in 1964Many of the lyrics are early examples of the elliptical, dreamlike language Dylan became better known for later. But the title phrase seemed to be a clear metaphor for falling atomic bombs and nuclear fallout.

This appears to be confirmed by the original liner notes for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, written by journalist, historian and music critic Nat Hentoff. 

Hentoff said the song “was written during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 when those who allowed themselves to think of the impossible results of the Kennedy-Khrushchev confrontation were chilled by the imminence of oblivion.”

Dylan is then quoted as saying: “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”

Fortunately, Bob and the world survived. On May 24, 2014, he turned 73.

I’m not many years from that age myself.

Today, I can listen to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” from a less paranoid perspective. But it still gives me the chills.

In case you haven’t read the lyrics, I’m reprinting them below.

By clicking this link or image at left, you can see Dylan perform the song in 1964, in an episode of the Canadian TV show Quest.

And, by clicking this link, you can listen to some of the many interesting cover versions that have been recorded by other musicians and groups over the years.

Here’s to you, Bob.  Hope you had a good birthday! Glad you’ve been wrong about that hard rain … so far.

 

“A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall” by Bob Dylan   

(Copyright © 1963 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991 by Special Rider Music)

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

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May 20, 2018

“From my cold, dead hands” – Charlton Heston’s most famous and infamous non-movie quote

Charlton Heston & flintlock, Cold Dead Hands speech 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The recent deadly school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, not long after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, reminded me of the context of Charlton Heston’s first notable use of his famous/infamous quote “From my cold, dead hands.” It was in a speech at an NRA meeting held a few months after the 1989 Stockton, California schoolyard shooting, in which dozens of children were killed and wounded by a lunatic armed with a semi-automatic rifle. Heston used those words in other speeches after that, including one on May 20, 2000 that gained even wider attention because he aimed them at Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. If Heston were still around, I suspect he would still be using the same defiant catchphrase to oppose any restrictions on guns in this country today, despite how many lives they have been used to take since 1989.

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For most of his life, Charlton Heston was best known for his long, highly successful career as an actor.

He appeared in more than 100 films, including some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters.

By the late 1980s, his movie career was starting to wane. But his prominence as a Second Amendment gun rights activist was just beginning. 

During the ‘60s, Heston had publicly supported Democratic politicians and liberal causes.

He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. at civil rights events, supported labor union activities, and endorsed gun control legislation, such as President Lyndon Johnson’s Gun Control Act of 1968.

As he got older, Heston became increasingly conservative.

He became a supporter of Republican candidates, like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, and spoke out against “political correctness.”

He also became an active, high-profile supporter of the National Rifle Association and its political efforts to block gun control laws. 

In the 1980s, Heston appeared in NRA ads and direct mail campaigns. In 1998, he was elected President of the NRA. He served in that role until 2003.

It was during his years as a prominent NRA supporter that Heston popularized the gun rights slogan: “From my cold, dead hands.”

Those words became his most widely-known non-movie quotation. He is even sometimes credited with coining it. But he didn't.

It’s based on previous slogans used by gun rights groups as early as the mid-1970s.

Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, Marlon Brando & Harry Belafonte, 1963 revFor example, an old NRA bumper sticker Heston was well aware of said: “I’ll give you my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands.”

It was a catchy way of suggesting that gun owners were willing to literally fight to the death to prevent the government from “taking away their guns.”

Charlton Heston first used the last five words of the bumper sticker line in a notable public forum on April 29, 1989, at the NRA’s annual convention in St. Louis.

Three months before that, on January 17, 1989, an unemployed welder named Patrick Edward Purdy had used a semi-automatic rifle to shoot and kill five school children and wound 32 others on the playground at the Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California.

This shocking and, at the time, still rare example of a mass school shooting generated a media firestorm.

It soon led to calls for state and federal action to ban semi-automatic weapons.

In his speech at the NRA’s April 29, 1989 convention, Heston argued that proposals for such bans were sparked by “media bias” against guns and would be unworkable, unacceptable infringements on the Second Amendment rights of American citizens.

After Heston finished the speech, he was presented with a silver-and-gold plated replica of a flintlock rifle, as a sign of appreciation from the NRA.

Smiling happily, Heston held up the gun and said: “I have only one more comment to make: From my cold, dead hands.”

Heston later used “From my cold, dead hands” in other speeches at NRA events, usually as part of his closing lines.

One particularly high-profile use was in the speech he gave at the NRA’s May 20, 2000 annual convention, which came during the 2000 presidential campaign and garnered considerable media attention.

In that speech, Heston criticized Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore for his support of stronger gun control laws.

At the end, he lifted the flintlock he was given in 1989 over his head and said:

“As we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!’”             

“From my cold, dead hands” has continued to be a favorite slogan of gun rights advocates — and a target of mockery by gun control advocates.

It has also spawned numerous take-offs and variations involving things other than guns.

Some of my favorite examples are listed in the post on my QuoteCounterquote.com site at this link.

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May 15, 2018

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.” (A little knowledge, too, but that’s a misquote.)


Most people have heard the old line of poetry: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

It became a proverbial saying that has been — and is still is — used and repurposed in many ways.

The common variation is “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” However, that’s an misquote of the original line written by British poet Alexander Pope in his work An Essay on Criticism.

This famous “essay” is actually a book-length poem.

Pope first published it anonymously exactly three hundred years ago today on May 15, 1711.

It’s composed in iambic pentameter. That’s the poetic style with words that have an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, thus sounding like “da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM”.

There are two other famous lines in Pope’s An Essay on Criticism almost everyone knows, even they’ve never read the poem.

One is the “To err is human, to forgive divine.” The other is “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

If you have read Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, you know it’s not an easy task.

It’s composed in a flowery, antique style and full of obscure references that make it hard for modern readers to grasp.

For example, here’s a longer passage that includes the famed “little learning” quote:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take nor see the lengths behind
But more advanced behold with strange surprise,
New distant scenes of endless science rise!”

This type of poesy is a bit reminiscent of Shakespeare. And, Shakespeare wrote some of his famous sonnets and verses of his plays in iambic pentameter.

But, personally, I find Shakespeare’s work much more enjoyable to read or hear than Pope’s and generally easier to comprehend.

With apologies to my high school and college English teachers, Pope’s poem An Essay on Criticism sounds to me like:

“Blah-BLAH, blah-BLAH...A little learning is a dangerous thing...blah-BLAH, blah-BLAH...To err is human...blah-BLAH, blah-BLAH...fools rush in...blah-BLAH, blah-BLAH.”

Of course, I only absorbed a little learning back in those days. (Hey, it was the Sixties.)

I encourage you to read the entire poem for yourself and draw your own conclusions about its Pierian spring of poetic wisdom.

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