American politicians love to quote Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who visited our young republic in 1831 and wrote the classic “Democracy in America.” Tocqueville’s appeal is understandable, since many of his insights remain valid more than 160 years after the book’s publication. But speechmakers too often cite Tocqueville without having read him or stopping to think what he meant.
And sometimes they quote words that he never even wrote.
In the video that introduced his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, Bill Clinton said: “There is much to be proud of, but there is also still much to do. I’ve learned all over again that what Alexis de Tocqueville said is still true, ‘America is great because America is good.’ ”
No one has ever found that line in Tocqueville’s works. It is part of a spurious Tocqueville quotation that begins, “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there.” For decades, Republicans and Democrats alike have dipped into the counterfeit passage to paint their speeches with artificial erudition. And now President Clinton has carried on this unfortunate tradition.
Remarkably, his gaffe escaped the national media. Perhaps it didn’t catch many eyes because it took place in the introductory video instead of the acceptance speech itself.
Still, this inattention contrasts with the widespread criticism former President Reagan received four years ago, when his GOP convention speech included a litany of purported Lincoln sayings about government and wealth. Among them: “You cannot help the wage-earner by pulling down the wage-payer.” As dozens of editorials and essays pointed out, the real author was a clergyman who wrote the maxims in a political tract long after Lincoln’s death. Historian Arthur Schlesinger sniffed: “One must wonder how anyone who affects to admire Lincoln can possibly suppose that the most fastidious and felicitous writer ever to be president could have produced such tinny banalities.”
Likewise, one must wonder why anyone who affects to admire Tocqueville’s work would fall for the phony Clinton citation. Though Tocqueville praised America in many respects, he also saw dark spots; among other things, he knew of no other country with “less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion.”
And one must also wonder why commentators do not hold a vigorous incumbent president to the same intellectual standard as an aging ex-president.
Even worse, the White House staff should have known that the Tocqueville quotation was a fake. In the Nov. 13, 1995, issue of the Weekly Standard, a national political magazine widely read in Washington, I wrote about the long history of the bogus passage, showing how writers had passed it along like a virus. A few weeks later, President Clinton nonetheless used the “America is great” line at a White House conference, for which the Standard then ridiculed him. How could the president’s huge staff of writers and researchers have missed two cautions?
One might dismiss this criticism as partisan nit-picking, but over the past year, this bit of ersatz Tocqueville has shown up in presidential remarks with the persistence of the Energizer Bunny.
In a Dec. 9 speech in Little Rock, Clinton repeated the line and then associated it with an Arkansas senator: “David Pryor has been a great public servant because he is fundamentally good.”
In his April 10 eulogy for Ron Brown, he said that the late commerce secretary had always remembered the Tocqueville phrase and had lived by it.
When he visited Denver on July 22, he trotted out the passage to laud the spirit of America’s Olympians.
There’s something almost pathological here. With his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford and his Georgetown and Yale degrees, this president does not need false quotations to convince people that he’s intelligent and well-read. In this regard, he resembles a millionaire who compulsively shoplifts from convenience stores.
So here’s a four-step program for the president and all those who suffer from False Tocqueville Syndrome. First, quit using the phony passage. Second, for the time being, stop quoting Tocqueville altogether. Third, sit down and read “Democracy in America.” Fourth, do not resume quoting Tocqueville until completing the third step.
Speeches would contain a little less fakery and politicians would gain a little more knowledge. Now that would be both great and good.