Mr. Kaplan, Tear Down This Wall: Bartlett's Missing Quotations

By Meyerson, Adam | Policy Review, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Mr. Kaplan, Tear Down This Wall: Bartlett's Missing Quotations


Meyerson, Adam, Policy Review


"I'm not going to disguise the fact that I despise Ronald Reagan," Justin Kaplan, editor of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. President Reagan "could not be described as a memorable phrase maker" but was really only "an actor masquerading as a leader," Mr. Kaplan later wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Kaplan was responding to criticisms, initiated by me and picked up by the Wall Street Journal editorial page and other publications, that he was trying to deny Ronald Reagan his rightful place in rhetorical history. His responses show that he has allowed his political bigotry to interfere with his scholarly judgment, and that he is abusing his power as guardian of one of America's leading cultural institutions.

The 16th edition of Bartlett's, published in late 1992, contains only three entries from Ronald Reagan, the same number as from Zachary Taylor and Gerald Ford. By comparison, there are 28 entries from John F. Kennedy and 35 from Franklin Roosevelt. Jimmy Carter, hardly remembered for his eloquence, has twice as many entries as the president who was called, even by his enemies, the "Great Communicator."

To make matters worse, the Reaganisms cited in Bartlett's 16th aren't even memorable; instead they are intended to make Mr. Reagan look ridiculous. One suggests there is no shortage of food in America. In another, Mr. Reagan says Republicans want "an America in which people can still get rich." The third compares government to a baby, "an alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no responsibility at the other."

These aren't the lines that admirers of Mr. Reagan's rhetoric most remember. None of President Reagan's great Cold War speeches are quoted -- not even his "evil empire" line, which Justin Kaplan misattributes to George Lucas's Star Wars screenplay. Nor are any of Mr. Reagan's most important statements of conservative principles deemed worthy of Bartlett's.

This was not an unintended oversight on Justin Kaplan's part. I and others sent him examples of great Reagan quotations that ought to be considered for the 17th edition. His response was to write in the Wall Street Journal that he "was doing [Mr. Reagan's] reputation a favor" by quoting so sparingly from him.

Mr. Kaplan's deliberate slighting of President Reagan is just the tip of the iceberg in his abuse of his cultural power. The 16th edition of Bartlett's has no quotations whatsoever from Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley Jr., Russell Kirk, Irving Kristol, George Will, George Gilder, Jeane Kirkpatrick, or Sidney Hook. It has 11 quotations from John Kenneth Galbraith, compared with three from Milton Friedman and two from Friedrich Hayek. It has six from Felix Frankfurter, six from Louis Brandeis, and four from Learned Hand, but none from Robert Bork. It has 11 from Martin Luther King, four from Malcolm X, and two from Jesse Jackson, but none from any contemporary black conservative such as Thomas Sowell.

Even when Mr. Kaplan quotes conservatives, he usually leaves out their ideologically most powerful statements. There are three quotations from Margaret Thatcher, none of them indicating what she believes in. The three quotations from John Paul II do not include his masterpiece encyclical Centesimus Annus. Of eight quotations from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, only one is a direct criticism of communism -- and that one is equally critical of the West. Ditto for Vaclav Havel, whose two quotes in Bartlett's do not include his most powerful insights into the nature of totalitarianism. The only 20th century conservative who gets a fair shake in Bartlett's is Winston Churchill.

Jonathan Siegel, co-editor of the Macmillan Book of Political Quotations, calls the political bias in the latest Bartlett's "an insult to the memory of John Bartlett and the ideologically inclusive spirit of the first 15 editions." The Macmillan collection has 65 quotations from Ronald Reagan and 34 from Margaret Thatcher. …

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