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Quote, unquote, Part 2

August 11, 2011

First, let’s check our quiz answers from last month, shall we?

Here’s the actual quote from President George H. W. Bush, from his State of the Union Address for 1992: “The opponents of this measure [cutting the capital gains tax] and those who’ve authored various so-called soak-the-rich bills that are floating around this chamber should be reminded of something: When they aim at the big guy, they usually hit the little guy. And maybe it’s time that stopped.”

(Does George give away the game here? He seems to be admitting that the “big guys” hide behind the “little guys.” But that’s something for another column.)

I made up the “Rousseau” and “Will Rogers” quotes myself. (Did you like them? Did you believe them, or at least think they were plausible?) But anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist really did say this: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

(If that makes you think of Michael Douglas dunking Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” I think that is exactly the image Grover had in mind. But that is also something for another column.)

By the way, I don’t want to seem to be picking on conservatives here. There are probably more than a few spurious quotes floating around that serve liberal narratives as well. (If you know any, send them to me.) However, I do think that conservatives give greater weight and credence to historical “authority” than liberals, and this may lead them to be more susceptible to believing, and therefore passing along, this sort of quotation.

Anyway: I have to admit, I brought up this whole subject of spurious quotes just because this one bugs me so much:

“That government is best that governs least.”

This quote, a great favorite of modern conservatives and libertarians, is sometimes attributed to Thomas Jefferson, sometimes Thomas Paine. But it actually enters the literature in the writings of Henry David Thoreau (of all people) in his essay “On Civil Disobedience”—and it wasn’t even original with him. The original was the motto of a journal called “The United States Magazine and Democratic Review,” edited by one John O’Sullivan. (See facweb.furman.edu/~benson/docs/demrev.htm for the full text of O’Sullivan’s manifesto, which puts this sentiment in context.)