Thirty-two years ago today, in a speech to the National Association of Manufacturers, President George H.W. Bush reprised an old political chestnut -- if only to undercut it.
Speaking about NAM officials Richard "Dick" Heckert and Alexander "Sandy" Trowbridge, Bush 41 said the following: "Harry Truman used to say: ‘If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.' And I'm here to disagree with him, because I feel in Dick, your chairman, and in Sandy, your president, and in the membership of this illustrious organization, that our administration has a friend not only in Washington but all across the country."
It was a nice sentiment, and the National Association Manufacturers' members and officers at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington laughed along with Bush in appreciation of the compliment. Except that Harry Truman didn't often proclaim that if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog. There's no evidence that he ever uttered that line, or anything like it. It's not how he viewed politics. Or dogs. I've debunked this hoary tale previously, but with two adopted dogs in the White House, I figured it was time to do so again.
You knew it would happen when Joe and Jill Biden rescued two dogs from a Delaware shelter. No, I don't mean you knew that the 78-year-old president would sustain a hairline fracture of his foot while playing with Major or that the 3-year-old German shepherd would bite a Secret Service agent. No, I'm talking about various commentators reprising the fictional Harry Truman line about dogs and Washington. Even the Associated Press repeated it.
To be clear, this quote is not merely unverified, it's preposterous. Truman grew up on a farm and viewed dogs as working animals. He also spent much of his professional life in Washington and had many friends in the city. Moreover, neither he nor his wife, Bess, considered canines to be cuddly creatures that should coddled and adored: In contrast to the Bidens, the Trumans gave away two that were given to them while Truman was president.
But there is a line in a 1975 play about Truman, "Give 'Em Hell Harry," in which the president's character delivers a version of the line at the end of a populist rant: "Banks, boy, there's a bunch of crooks for you. They're happy to lend you money when you prove you don't need it. You want a friend in life, get a dog!"
There this line lay quietly, like a sleeping dog, for a decade or so until it slowly awoke. Fueled by cocktail chatter and garbled translations from theater critics, it emerged during the Reagan administration as a "Truman" quote. On Feb. 24, 1986, Attorney General Edwin Meese spoke at a party and attributed this line to the 33rd U.S. president: "If you really want a friend in Washington, buy a dog."
Notice how the word "life" had been replaced by "Washington." This makes sense considering how much the Reagan Revolution had targeted Washington, D.C., and the federal government as the source of the nation's problems. To be fair, however, Meese offered it as a laugh line, and an ironic one: The party was hosted at the Heritage Foundation by "Friends of Ed Meese."
Ed Meese surely did have friends. He also seems to have started something. Databases were new then, but an account of this quote did appear in The Washington Post. A year later, in a story about how St. Patrick's Day was celebrated in the nation's capital, a lobbyist named H. Spofford Canfield IV garbled the already suspect quote rather spectacularly, telling Tom Baden, Washington correspondent for the Syracuse Post-Standard: "Harry Truman once said that the first thing you do in Washington is get a dog, because you'll need a friend."
On June 7, 1987, the bogus quote was returned to its original (bogus) form by Stanford professor and future White House economist Michael J. Boskin, who passed it along to Alan Greenspan as friendly advice via The New York Times. Now the dogs were really on the loose.
On Nov. 16, 1987, White House press spokesman Marlin Fitzwater used the invented Truman-dog quote, with a slight variation, in defense of deputy White House chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein, who had been accused by various columnists of trying to undermine other White House officials -- including, you guessed it, Ed Meese.
"As Harry Truman once said, ‘If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,'" Fitzwater told reporters. "Duberstein's at the kennel right now."
By this time, the rhetorical dog was truly chasing its own tail. By the following spring, President Reagan was using the line himself, sometimes twice a week, prefacing it by calling it Truman's "famous" comment and using the "get a dog" wording. But "buy a dog" had adherents, too. (That phrasing is interesting because, as famed quote investigator Ralph Keyes has demonstrated, "Need a friend? Buy a dog" was a common construction of newspaper want ads as far back as 1911. This wasn't political or social commentary; these were simply advertisements intended to sell pets.)
Anyway, by the end of the Reagan years, the revisionism had started. Critics didn't question the authenticity of the Truman quote; instead, they took issue with the sentiment behind it. On Sept. 6, 1988, in a speech at the National Press Club, outgoing Education Secretary Bill Bennett said that Truman's dictum about friends and dogs in Washington rang "funny, but false."
On March 10, 1989, Maureen Dowd used the line, attributed to Truman but without citing a source, in a piece about how new president George H.W. Bush actually had plenty of friends. This story must have delighted Bush and his speechwriters, because the 41st president began using the "Truman" quote regularly -- and the same way Bennett and Dowd had: To negate Truman's supposed point. That was the context for that March 23, 1989 speech to the National Association of Manufacturers.
The following decade, at the 1996 National Prayer Breakfast, President Clinton used it in a riff that strung together two unrelated adages in the same breath: "I think it was Harry Truman who said if you want a friend in Washington, you need to buy a dog," Clinton said. "I think of what Benjamin Franklin said. He said our enemies are our friends, for they show us our faults."
The Franklin quote, which comes from "Poor Richard's Almanack," is garbled, though close enough. But some stories are, in the sardonic old newsroom phrase, "too good to check." So 20 years later, when John Kasich was one of the last Republicans standing against Donald Trump in the 2016 GOP primaries, he told an audience, "You know what Truman said -- ‘You want a friend in Washington, buy a dog."
Trump is not a pet person. One of his go-to insults is to compare people who anger him to dogs. His successor is a dog lover, as most previous U.S. presidents have been. But on the bright side, the Bidens didn't have to clean up any residual messes -- at least the kind left behind by House cats or dogs. Which reminds me of a presidential dog story that I believe is true. The source is Ron Nessen, a former journalist and White House press secretary in the Ford administration, and a man with a reputation for veracity.
It seems that President Ford's dog, Liberty, had an accident on the Oval Office carpet. As a Navy steward rushed in, paper towels in hand, to deal with the mess, Jerry Ford interceded. "I'll do that," said the president. "No man should have to clean up after another man's dog."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.