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Infamous Things Said By Famous Politicians

What Politicians Said and Didn’t Say, But People Think They Did

There Are Known Knowns - US Air Force

Politicians love to coin a winning catchphrase, but often the media do it for them, even if it wasn’t what they actually said. That can be a great political help or not.

Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was lampooned mercilessly for saying: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know”. In the context of government and war, it is possibly factually correct.

Things That They Actually Said

For him, it was but one of many gems, (‘the way to do well, is to do well”), yet he followed in the well-trodden path of a predecessor, Vice President Dan Quayle, who coined such classics as: “I have made good judgements in the Past. I have made good judgements in the Future”. And, “It’s time for the human race to enter the solar system”. Perhaps his best was: “When I have been asked who caused the riots in LA, my answer is simple. Who is to blame for the riots? The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame”.

Both men actually said the words attributed to them. In the UK, many politicians are associated with phrases they never actually spoke. As Secretary of State for Employment facing rising job losses in manufacturing and subsequent rioting, Norman Tebbit was quoted as telling jobseekers to “get on your bikes” and go look for work. What he in fact said was: “I grew up in the ’30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking ’til he found it”.

Headline Writers Dream-up Catchphrases

The one-time UK Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, Enoch Powell’s April 1968 speech warned about rivers of blood in the land over too many immigrants. It made him famous and controversial, helped the Conservatives win the 1970 election and got him dismissed from the Shadow Cabinet. However, the phrase ‘rivers of blood” never appeared in the speech at all; but it was a powerful headline.

As was, “Crisis, What Crisis,’ blazoned across the tabloids when “Sunny” Jim Callaghan, Labour Prime Minister, returned to Britain in 1979 after 4 days in Guadeloupe attending an international summit. Strikes had gripped industrial output in protest at the government’s 5% pay rise limit. The press asked him at the airport if he would declare a state of emergency.

He said: “I promise if you look at it from the outside, I don’t think other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos”. That is rather more wordy, cumbersome and unappealing in media terms than what was used.

The media also played loose with Callaghan’s Chancellor, Denis Healey, who growled: “I warn you there are going to be howls of anguish from those rich enough to pay over 75% on their last slice of earnings”. That became: “Tax the rich till the pips squeak”. However, the Healey phrase, “Silly Billy” was actually created by impressionist Mike Yarwood and not the media, nor by Healey himself being misinterpreted.

Current Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, is credited with the cry: ‘hug a hoodie’, implying that young, often disaffected youth wear hoods as a statement of disillusion with the world they are in, and all they need is an affectionate hug to be at peace with their lives and the rest of us. In fact, he said that hoodies are ‘more defensive than aggressive’. The misquote sits better on a newspaper front page, of course.

So perhaps the message for all politicians is ‘be careful what you say’. But in the age of 24-hour news, the internet, social networking, leaks, a media hungry for exclusives and bite-sized, easy to sell catchphrases, it will make little difference what they say. It’s what they are perceived to say that matters.

First published on Suite 101, 23 March 2010.

Photo: There Are Known Knowns – US Air Force

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