Monday, May 07, 2007


Frank Rich begins his latest with a reference to JFK:

"If, as J.F.K. had it, victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan ..."

Sometimes it seems like people attribute things to JFK without having checked out the source. Some Googling does the trick: JFK might have gotten the line from, of all people, Mussolini's son-in-law Count Galeazzo Ciano (1903-1944): La victoria trova cento padri, a nessuno vuole riconoscere l'insuccesso (1942), The Ciano Diaries, 1939-1943, Vol. 2. (I don't speak Italian, so I am just trusting that that is correct.

But from there the above link takes us to Tacitus,
Agricola, 27: "It is the singularly unfair peculiarity of war that the credit of success is claimed by all, while a disaster is attributed to one alone." Here's the Latin (supposedly), for those of you who learned it: "inquissima haec bellorum condicio est: prospera omnes sibi indicant, aduersa uni imputantur."

As is so often the case, the general moral of the story is that whoever is supposed to have said it might well have not been the first to do so. Further, the Greeks and Romans already said everything, and what they did not say is covered by some ancient Chinese proverb or tribal African saying (which has more moral authority these days than anything said by the Greeks and Romans, those DWEMs).

And finally, JFK may have said, but he stole it, too. Why can't Frank Rich do the few seconds of work that I did, and get his source right? Or, alternatively, refer to a poet? :-)

Coda: It's perhaps also worth noting that the Agricola is about Tacitus's father-in-law, so it might well be as self-serving as anything by George Tenet.


Donald Brown said...

Something about your comments seem misdirected, to me.

1st of all JFK said, "It has been said..." or something to that effect when introducing the quotation; he did not claim it as a coinage. Rich I'm sure knows this and so says "as JFK had it" which indicates that it's a received opinion that JFK expressed, more contemporaneously and, arguably, famously than your sources.

It's nice to show that JFK may have been trading upon some classics course at Harvard or, given the military occasion of the original, that he got it from some general's memoirs who said it while knowing it was from a classic but not sure from where.

So, is the point that we all borrow, or that google makes it easy to be a scholar, or...

as to Rich, I believe he has reasons for saying "JFK" and not "Tacitus" in making his point.

Andrew Shields said...

Rich certainly has reasons (as JFK did) for not wanting to attribute the precise phrasing of the 100 fathers / orphan version to Mussolini's son-in-law!

Donald Brown said...

re: Mussolini:

"He was one of us only, pure prose."
--Robert Lowell, "Crossing the Alps"

He did write extremely well, unlike, well, never mind.

But then is the point that we tend not to attribute correctly quotations from people when we agree with the quotation but not with the politics or other general orientation of the person?

Why would anyone say, "As Mussolini's son-in-law once said ..."?

Andrew Shields said...

I'm interested in why people appeal to the authorities they appeal to. If there are several possible sources of a saying, then why does Rich choose JFK? For that matter, why does Rich need a saying at all? Why cannot he stand on his own authority, without appealing to JFK's?

I might be misremembering some of the details this, but here goes: in his inaugural lecture at the College de France (I forget what it's called), Foucault talked about the problem of beginning, and how one needs a way to enter discourse. He himself used Samuel Beckett to "enter discourse": once you have cited someone, you have begun.

Perhaps that's why a standard rhetorical tactic is to begin by citing something. And here I am, appealing to Foucault to justify my comments on Rich's appeal to JFK.