After the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961, John F. Kennedy's third month in office, the president reluctantly accepted the blame by noting, "There's an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan."
It was an astute observation about the pitfalls of failure. But President Kennedy's pithy observation also contains a key ingredient to successful leadership -- at least for any politician savvy enough to see it. President Reagan certainly did: He had enshrined on his Oval Office desk this adage: "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit."
President Clinton knew this line, too, and used it often. In his first State of the Union address, he actually mentioned Reagan in this context while discussing the burgeoning national debt.
"Twelve years ago, Ronald Reagan stood at this podium and told the American people that if our debt were stacked in dollar bills, the stack would reach 67 miles into space," Clinton said that night. "Today, that stack would reach 267 miles. I tell you this not to assign blame for this problem. There is plenty of blame to go around -- in both branches of the government and both parties. … I came here to accept responsibility; I want you to accept responsibility for the future of this country, and if we do it right, I don't care who gets the credit for it."
In Clinton's two terms in office, I often heard him express a variation on this theme -- that our nation's political leadership could accomplish so much more if it didn't worry about pointing fingers at political adversaries when things went wrong or boasting about their own perceived victories. It's a profound idea, but not a new one. But where does it come from originally? Although Hugh Sidey of Time magazine once ascribed the sentiment to President Truman, I've been unable to find anything of the sort in the Truman canon. And the line -- or a version of it -- predates Harry Truman's birth.
Dedicated quote sleuth Ralph Keyes has traced it as far back as the 19th century diary of Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff. Here's an entry from 1863, in its entirety: "Met at the house of the Rev. C.K. Paul, at Stourminster, Marshall, Father Strickland, an English Jesuit, who said to me, ‘I have often observed, throughout life, that a man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it."
Little is known about Father Strickland, not even his full name. But all these years later, his wisdom endures -- and is badly needed in these troubling and unsettling times. For that reason, it's your quote of the week.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.