The Great Catchphrases of Presidential Administrations


It seems that every great president says or provokes a succinct quote or two that somehow define his administration for years to come, catchphrase that “tag” their time in power and their era. My memory only goes back so far, and I’m a European not American history, so I’m sketchy on pre-Nixon examples. But I’ve been thinking of it lately, because I think I know the phrase that will, for me, characterize Dubya and his time in my mind. Do you have one in mind? Think before you read and see if you agree.

I’ll get to Bush all the way at the bottom, but since I’m incurably long-winded, this has me thinking of all the other quotes of a similar nature, inspiring and ignoble that float in my head. Since I assume my readers, if any, are less patient than I am long-winded, I’ll bold the names of the presidents in question so you can skip the ones you don’t care about.

Some obvious quips from the past are things like:

  • Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address: “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and how wrong was he when he added “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here”.
  • Coolidge : “After all, the chief business of the American people is business”. That, by the way, is the correct version and it is nicely set in context by a writer I normally dislike, Robert Novak, in a nevertheless interesting article on Coolidge (The Ranter outed – he sometimes reads Novak and Will and Buchanan, disagree with them though he may).
  • Roosevelt gets two of the great quotes of the twentieth century: 1) “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” and 2) “This is a day that will live in infamy.”
  • Truman must have something better than “Dewey wins!” but I can’t think of it.
  • Eisenhower and Truman have to share the McCarthy quotes: 1) “I have here in my hand a list of 205 people that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party” from February 1950 (attributed, but somewhat disputed) and 2) the famous rejoinder four years later “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” asked of McCarthy by Joseph Welch in 1954 at the Army-McCarthy hearings (verified and freely online as an mp3).
  • In his farewell speech to the nation on January 17, 1960, Eisenhower, the only great military leader to occuppy the White House in the twentieth century, noted a growing danger in the nuclear age: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Dan Briody, by the way, opens his book The Iron Triangle: Inside the Secret World of the Carlyle Group with this quote because, he says “I think that that is exactly what we’re seeing today.”
  • Kennedy is a hard one, because he had such command of the language. Without doubt, the most famous quote is from his Innaugural Speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I think there are two others, though, that fit better in the theme of this list:
    • His Cold War call to arms, also from the Innaugural Speech: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
    • And his announcement of his intention to put a man on the moon: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”
  • I’ll skip Johnson, because only a couple of days ago I went on at length about his quote about Vietnam
  • Nixon has no shortage of material, but here I get into the type of quote I’m really thinking of: Nixon’s own pronouncement: “I am not a crook” and Howard Baker’s question: “What did the president know and when did he know it.”
  • Gerald Ford, unfortunately and unfairly, will always be associated with one quote from Lyndon Johnson: “The trouble with Jerry Ford is that he used to play football without a helmet” (in fact, that may well be Johnson‘s most famous quote and I believe that is the correct version).
  • For all his greatness as an ex-president, I think Carter will always be associated with “Hi, I’m Jimmy Carter” and “I have lusted in my heart.”
  • Reagan, of course, has to be associated with killer trees and other inanities beyond recollection and recall (see There He Goes Again: Ronald Reagan’s Reign of Error available on Amazon for $0.31 as of this writing! Great book). Still, much as I hated Reagan, I think two other quotes will stick out from his administration:
    • “Mr Gorbachev, take down this wall” obviously.
    • The other one that sticks in my mind, though, goes to the arrogance of the first Bush administration, but also taints Reagan, and comes from the Iran-Contra hearings. At that time, known felon Ollie North, who only avoided jail time on a technicality, was holding forth lecturing Senator Daniel Inouye on patriotism and defending one’s country. Yes, that Inouye, the Medal of Honor winner who lost an arm in combat. I can’t find the actual quote, though I would love to, but Inouye said something like “Son, do not presume to lecture me on patriotism.” Like I say, that’s not exact, but it is for me a defining moment the first time a Bush rode roughshod over the US Constitution in the name of patriotism.
  • Clinton spared our Constitution, but not our dignity with “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

So now the question is, what will be the quote that, for me, defines the Bush years? I think it’s one I mentioned the other day where John McCain said “It’s not about who they are. It’s about who we are.” We are, as it turns out, a nation that condones torture, that turns the clock back on civil protections associated with wiretaps, that (like father like son) runs roughshod over that pesky Constitution and, but the way, secrets individuals off to prisons in foreign lands where, perhaps, they will be lucky to be charged and tried, a right that is now frequently denied in America. As crass as the quotebook legacy left by Clinton is, I think that history will judge Bush more harshly. I suspect that only a few of us will be stuck with the McCain quote floating in our heads every time Bush is mentioned though.

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