During the years when Harry S Truman was President of the United States, from 1945 to 1954, he was often viewed as a feisty, fairly controversial politician.
Today, Truman is widely considered to be “a true statesman.”
If he were still alive, “Give ‘em Hell” Harry might find that ironic in light of the famous quip he uttered on this date.
On April 11, 1958, speaking to the Reciprocity Club in Washington, D.C., the retired president said:
“A statesman is a politician who’s been dead ten or fifteen years.”
Although that line is humorous, Truman was actually making a serious point about the pragmatic business of politics and running a government.
Here’s a longer excerpt from what he said, showing the context of the quip:
Thomas Brackett Reed (1839-1902).
“I’m proud that I’m a politician. A politician is a man who understands government,
and it takes a politician to run a government. A statesman is a politician who's
been dead ten or fifteen years.”
Reed was a U.S. Congressman from Maine who served as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1889 to 1891 and again from 1895 to 1899.
In 1892, he received a letter from a citizen who asked him: “What is a statesman?”
Reed replied: “A statesman is a successful politician who is dead.”
This is now sometimes quoted without the word “successful.” But the longer version seems to be the one used by the early sources that cited it.
In March of 1892, news reports about Reed’s definition of a statesman prompted a response by a Boston man, who sent him a telegram saying: “Why don’t you die?”
So much for the myth that “civil discourse” was the rule in past eras.
NOTE: For more about the Reed and Truman quotes and other statesman vs. politician quips, see the post by word maven Barry Popik on The Big Apple website.
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