Read any book about World War II and you’re bound to find inspiring quotes by Winston Churchill, along with some withering comments he made about rival politicians or anyone he thought deserved his scathing wit. One of his favorite targets was Clement Attlee who inspired these classic lines:
A sheep in sheep’s clothing.
A modest man, who has much to be modest about.
An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Attlee got out.
My multilingual mother–given to quotations in Latin, German and French–especially loved the middle one. I seem to recall her also crediting Churchill with the line “Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.” She may have been referring to Spiro Agnew.
I could be wrong about her target and even her crediting Churchill, but for years I’ve thought that the line was his. I’m wrong. When I recently looked for the source, the brilliant line didnt show up anywhere on Churchill web sites. But there’s a highly tangential Churchill connection: The Dark Horse, a forgotten 1932 political satire starring Bette Davis.
It features a nitwit politician whose adviser has instructed him to answer tough questions with “Well yes, but then again no.” The politician is classed as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.” You’re wondering about the connection? His opponent is played by an actor named Churchill. I know, that’s a stretch.
But the line’s political lineage isn’t just fictional. It goes a few decades further back to the powerful Republican Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed, who was nicknamed “Czar Reed.”
In 1909, Pearson Magazine no. 22 reported Reed explaining why he ignored one Representative while paying attention to another:
“Whenever A takes the floor, the House learns something, but when that fellow B speaks, he invariably subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”
We have to assume the line had filtered into political discourse enough so that the script writers of Dark Horse could use it to comic effect not too many years later. Did Reed come up with it on his own? At first it seems likely, since his recent biographer says he was renowned for his wit:
On one occasion, when a Democratic colleague “was rash enough to quote Henry Clay’s line about rather being right than president,” Speaker Reed shot back the assurance that, “The gentleman needn’t worry. He will never be either.” Harry Truman’s oft-quoted line that “A statesman is a politician who’s been dead 10 or 15 years,” is actually a direct steal from Reed’s earlier, more polished quip that “A statesman is a successful politician who is dead.” Reflecting on his chances of winning a long-shot bid for the presidential nomination in 1896, Reed said of his fellow Republicans, “They can do worse. And they probably will.”
Reed did more than quip, though: he sped up action in the House by ending what was in effect an institutional filibuster (too bad he never made it to the Senate).
Teddy Roosevelt, though, would seem to get ultimate credit for the phrase. Biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz write that TR used it to dismiss an opponent on New York’s Civil Service Commission when he was the Commissioner from 1889-1895. TR put down his rival with these words: “Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human wisdom.”
So many of our current politicians fit that description, don’t they? Too bad we don’t have more wits like Churchill, Reed, or Teddy Roosevelt around to put them in their place.
Lev Raphael’s comic mystery series, set in the hothouse world of academia, has been praised by The New York Times Book Review and many other newspapers for its wit and one-liners. You can find them on Amazon.