Teapot Tempest: DeSantis Misquote Goes Viral

Teapot Tempest: DeSantis Misquote Goes Viral

Reader note

This post falls under the title “pedantry.” As I said when Poli­ti­fact asked: Who cares? Many fake Churchill quotes like Gov­er­nor DeSan­tis’ are hon­or­able things for any­one to have said, and Churchill said many things like them. We like to keep the record straight, and we will keep doing the job of ver­i­fy­ing. But these are not big ques­tions, of which there are plen­ty. So if pedantry is not your thing, go on to anoth­er post. RML

DeSantis redux

On Jan­u­ary 22nd Flori­da Gov­er­nor Ron DeSan­tis dropped out of the inter­minable Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry cam­paign. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, he did so with a quo­ta­tion incor­rect­ly cred­it­ed to Sir Win­ston Churchill: “Suc­cess is not final, fail­ure is not fatal: it is the courage to con­tin­ue that counts.”

That is heard as often as the oth­er suc­cess mis­quote: “Suc­cess is the abil­i­ty to go from one fail­ure to anoth­er with no loss of enthu­si­asm.” Yet the sen­ti­ments are hon­or­able, whether Churchill said them or not. He did say, for exam­ple: “suc­cess can­not be guar­an­teed. There are no safe bat­tles.” (The Sec­ond World War IV, 277—thanks for this, Cdr. Lar­ry Kryske.)

The Governor’s line was, how­ev­er, some­what inap­pro­pri­ate. If what real­ly counts is “the courage to con­tin­ue,” DeSan­tis was say­ing he lacked the courage. Yet he is demon­stra­bly coura­geous. So the Churchill quote he want­ed was: “…nev­er give in, except to con­vic­tions of hon­our and good sense.” (And that one is genuine.)

Media frenzy

Imme­di­ate­ly, a score of news out­lets crowed that DeSan­tis had mis­quot­ed Churchill. It is encour­ag­ing that the half-life­time some of us have spent cor­rect­ing fake Churchill quotes has its effect. I sus­pect, how­ev­er, that the ker­fuf­fle had more to do with pil­ing on the Gov­er­nor than advanc­ing truth about Churchill.

The cacoph­o­ny was accom­pa­nied by the usu­al media mis­in­for­ma­tion. One of the Churchill soci­eties solemn­ly informed reporters that they had sur­veyed 50 mil­lion words by and about Churchill to prove the line was pho­ny. (That was true in 2013, when I wrote it, but they need to get up to date. Our scans for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project now cov­er 80 mil­lion words.)

Bud drinkers “found con­tent­ment in the thrill of action, know­ing that suc­cess was nev­er final and fail­ure nev­er fatal It was courage that count­ed.” (Anheuser Busch, St. Louis, 1938)

Rapid­ly, Google Alerts for “Win­ston Churchill” piled up in my in-box. Most of the sto­ries just copied from each oth­er, as usu­al. But Ken­neth Sil­ber’s piece in Splice­To­day was orig­i­nal, accu­rate and bal­anced, and I thanked him for it. Among oth­er things, Sil­ber cred­its the admirable QuoteInvestigator.com for track­ing the “suc­cess” line back to a 1938 Bud­weis­er beer ad. And before that to a 19th cen­tu­ry whaler named George Fred Tilton! “Suc­cess is not final” has also been ascribed with­out attri­bu­tion to Abra­ham Lincoln.

Other appearances

Churchill’s pho­ny suc­cess quotes pop up by the dozens on the web, and even in some poor­ly researched quote books. But they can­not be found in his 80-mil­lion-word canon. Hillsdale’s dig­i­tal scans include all of his pub­lished books, arti­cles, speech­es and papers; and words about him by fam­i­ly or col­leagues. More­over, based on edit­ing 5000 quotes in the next edi­tion of my book, Churchill By Him­self, I don’t believe it even sounds like him. For what he real­ly said about success—and courage—see links below.

My col­league Bill Schaub reminds me that—unfortunately—“success is not final” etc. is also the very last line you see in the gen­er­al­ly exem­plary Gary Old­man film Dark­est Hour. Bill found a video of the last six min­utes on YouTube.

“Gov­er­nor DeSan­tis, who I under­stand is a gen­uine Churchillian, per­haps relied too much on his mem­o­ry or was a vic­tim of poor staffwork,” Bill writes. That is so, but thanks for remind­ing me of Gary Oldman’s stel­lar per­for­mance. It still sends shiv­ers through the spine.

Further reading

“Suc­cess: What Churchill Real­ly Said,” 2019.

“Churchillian (Or Yogi Berra) Drift: How Quo­ta­tions Are Invent­ed,” 2013.

“All the Quotes Win­ston Churchill Nev­er Said,” 2018.

One thought on “Teapot Tempest: DeSantis Misquote Goes Viral

  1. I high­ly val­ue RL’s years of work on the Churchill canon. What I fail to under­stand is the affec­tion of Churchillians for such fig­ures as DeSan­tis and Trump, politi­cians whose val­ues are the antithe­sis of WSC’s lib­er­al (tra­di­tion­al) and gen­er­ous spir­it. The mean­ness and big­otry of MAGA and its hang­ers on. such as DeSan­tis, sure­ly would have repelled the Great Man.

    Thanks for the kind words. We do not here advo­cate for any politi­cians except Win­ston Churchill. The fever swamps of social media are the place for that. We also observe the Mary Soames Com­mand­ment: “Thou shalt not declare what Papa would say about any mod­ern issue.”

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