In my previous post, I raised the question of how authentic Harding’s quote was about being unfit for the presidency – a quote widely repeated without any sourcing and time element.
I could find just one possible source, which I described thusly:
“The closest I’ve been able to find as a source is Wikiquote, which cites a 1939 book by Nicholas Murray Butler (1939) Across the Busy Years vol. 1. That’s not exactly a plenitude of confirmation, although it’s better than nothing. I would have thought such a startling quote would have been written about more extensively. . .“
And toward the end of my post I wrote:
“But perhaps there is such an authoritative source for this quote, specifying its date and circumstances. I’ve not had much success so far.”
The info-savvy Dave Maas has provided the text of that quote (shown above), thanks to the power of Archive.org. Thanks, Dave.
And the circumstances explain why it was not widely quoted at the time: Butler heard it in private from Harding. There were no witnesses.
So we have the actual source text, and considerable detail about its circumstances. The question is, how reliable is it? Here’s my evaluation of the pros and cons:
*The quote was made in private. Since Harding was long dead, he was not around to dispute it.
*The quote was in a book published 16 years after Harding’s death, when Butler was in his late 70s.
*No time element. Butler writes that Harding said those words “on one occasion,” after 6 p.m. during his presidency. A lack of a specific date and time is one of the red flags of a potentially spurious quote.
*Lack of contemporaneous verification, such as letters or notes. As far as I can tell, no such material exists. Butler kept that quote to himself all those years until the book was published.
*Lack of any record that Harding made any similar admission to anyone else. (I’m assuming here that if Harding had confessed his unfitness to anyone else and it had been recorded, it would have been published).
*The quote’s startling nature. For a president to outright confess his unfitness for the job is extraordinary. And the more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence needed to confirm it.
*Butler had been a political rival to Harding. Both ran for president in 1920. A derogatory quote about a rival demands more verification than a quote from a friend. Perhaps Butler and Harding reconciled after the election; Butler represents himself as being on the most intimate terms with Harding. But Butler’s word is not enough; we need independent sources to show that the two had become friends.
*Memories are often unreliable. Even if we assume Butler remembered the quote, did he remember it accurately? Or did he imagine he remembered it? That’s why contemporaneous records are so critical. If Butler had written down the quote at the time in a diary, it would be most supportive. That he gave no date for the quote — except that it happened during Harding’s presidency one evening after 6 p.m. — strongly suggests he was recalling it from memory long after the fact.
*Lack of reference in Harding biographies. Rostrafarian Jim Sills said he couldn’t find any reference to this most amazing quote in several Harding biographies. This quote is often represented as a one-sentence verdict on Harding. So why is it not in any of the biographies Sills skimmed?
Butler has sterling credentials as an educator and public servant. Among his honors, Butler was president of Columbia University and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Would such a man lie, or be mistaken about such a notable statement? There is no certain answer, but Butler was certainly regarded as trustworthy by his peers. He had a high sense of honor, although he struck some people as a little stuffy and pompous. Great men often are perceived that way.
Also, Butler’s description of his visits to Harding are richly detailed, which could indicate his powers of observation and memory were very great. That would not be startling in a man of his high capacity. (Or, that he was quite imaginative).
That’s about it for the pro side.
Another argument mentioned by Dave, that the eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger cites the quote, means nothing. Schlesinger is not a primary source. He simply repeats what Butler wrote. He gives no information to corroborate Butler.
The (disappointing) Verdict
When I add them up, I can’t dismiss the quote as spurious. I also can’t regard it as established fact.
This quote is well into an uncomfortable gray area where a positive resolution one way or the other doesn’t seem likely. In my opinion, the Harding quote should not be presented as definitive fact, but as a statement of indeterminate veracity.
If I mentioned the quote in a news article, I’d describe it as thinly sourced and of questionable reliability. It was presented by an eminently respectable man, a onetime rival to Harding, in his late 70s, without a date, 16 years after the fact, without contemporaneous verification.
The larger point is that all quotes and statements should be given such an authenticity test. Quotes or historical references should provide a specific source, and indicate when the quote was uttered, and to whom, and where. Quotes missing even one of these attributes are suspect.
I’ll close by repeating my earlier post’s citation of a Wikipedia contributor to the Harding article, KarlFrei, who argued against the quote’s reliability on March 13, 2008.:
“As a bare minimum, we should be able to establish exactly *when* he said this and to whom, and perhaps also in what circumstances. None of the sources I found provide any background, they simply repeat the quote verbatim. As long as we cannot even pin a date on this quote, I do not believe it should be in this encyclopedia.”
(DISCLAIMER: This post by Bradley J. Fikes does not necessarily represent the opinion of the North County Times, his employer.)