Finest Hour 141, Winter 2008-09
By Michael Richards
The Oxford English Dictionary defined “red herring” as a metaphor to draw pursuers off a track…the trailing or dragging of a dead Cat or Fox (and in case of necessity a Red-Herring) three or four miles…and then laying the Dogs on the scent…To attempt to divert attention from the real question…”
Finest Hour answers hundreds of emails to The International Churchill Society asking us to verify Churchill quotes, many of which turn out to be red herrings. Many remarks which Churchill used originated with others (e.g., “Democracy is the worst system, except for all the other systems”). He deployed his favourites frequently, but not always with attribution, or even quote marks, because he assumed his listeners would recognise them instantly. In his time, sadly, people were simply better read than they are today.
Here are some of the most popular, referenced in Churchill by Himself, the book of Churchill quotes by Richard Langworth (reviewed on page 49).
This remark is frequently said to have been made to the manager of the Plaza Hotel in New York City on Churchill’s 1929 or 1931 visit. Sir John Colville, WSC’s longtime private secretary, credits it to Churchill’s close friend F.E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead: “Winston is easily satisfied with the best.” But since the publication of Churchill by Himself (page 49), Robert Pilpel has informed us that the originator was George Bernard Shaw. In Shaw’s play Major Barbara (1905), Lady Britomart says (act 1, scene 1): “I know your quiet, simple, refined, poetic people like Adolphus—quite content with the best of everything!”
Of course, Churchill may have learned the phrase from Shaw or Smith, and adapted it later.
Sir Anthony Montague Browne, WSC’s private secretary, 1952-65, quotes the more likely version: “Dogs look up to you, cats look down on you. Give me a pig! He looks you in the eye and treats you as an equal.” Several other variations exist, Sir Anthony’s is the most authentic. A version posted at Chartwell, which doesn’t sound like WSC’s style, reads: “…Cats look down on human beings, dogs look up to them, but pigs just treat us as human beings.”
No attribution. A number of sources credit this to Abraham Lincoln, but without attribution. A correct substitute: “Success always demands a greater effort.” (WSC to Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies, 13 December 1940, published in Their Finest Hour, 1949.)
Correctly: “Courage is the first of human qualities because, as has been said, it is the quality…” etc. (“Alfonso the Unlucky,” Strand Magazine, July 1931; reprinted in Great Contemporaries, 1937. “As has been said” likely refers to Samuel Johnson’s “Sir, you know courage is reckoned the greatest of all virtues; because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other.”
Reiterated in many sources including a 2005 TV ad by Lockheed Martin. A marketing pitch that was dressed up as a Churchill quote.
No attribution. A correct substitute: “It is a fine game to play the game of politics and it is well worth a good hand before really plunging.” (WSC to his mother, Aldershot, 16 August 1895.)
No attribution. Substitute: “The spectacle of a number of middle-aged gentlemen who are my political opponents being in a state of uproar and fury is really quite exhilarating to me.” (House of Commons, 21 May 1952.)
No attribution. Substitute: “Taxes are an evil—a necessary evil, but still an evil, and the fewer we have of them the better.” (House of Commons, 12 February 1906.)
No attribution found. Here is a substitute, not an original Churchill quote (it’s from Longfellow, “The Ladder of St. Augustine,” stanza 10); but frequently repeated both by WSC and his son Randolph:
The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not achieved by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.
Close but, er, no cigar. The correct version, when General Montgomery declared, “I neither drink nor smoke and I am 100 percent fit.” is: “I drink and smoke and I am 200 percent fit.” (Memoirs of Field Marshal Montgomery, 1958; FH 86.)
Allegedly said but unverified. According to Ralph Keyes, editor of The Quote Verifier (2006): “British quote maven Nigel Rees thought the comment might have originated with newspaper columnist J.B. Morton [1893-1979] in the 1930s.”
Published without attribution in The American Spectator, July–August 2005. Editor R. Emmett Tyrrell questioned the attributor, who said it was reported by Randolph Churchill in a 1953 conversation, but “of course Randolph was drunk at the time.” A little dubious.
No attribution. Along the lines of the quote above, Churchill did not make smutty gags.
This reference to de Gaulle was actually by General Spears, WSC’s military representative to France, 1939–40.
Remarkably, this famous and oft-quoted expression doesn’t track. It is not among Churchill’s published words and appears only in The Last Lion by William Manchester, whose notes do not lead the reader to its origin.
No attribution. Though he sometimes despaired of democracy’s slowness to act for its preservation, Churchill had a more positive attitude towards the average voter.
If he ever said it, he was quoting Blaise Pascal in 1656.
Lovely, but it was Lloyd George, not Churchill.
Credit Harold Macmillan, not Churchill for this phrase in 1958. Four year earlier, in 1954, Churchill actually said, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.”
Specifically denied by WSC. An old naval saw.
On ending sentences with prepositions. Fred Shapiro (Yale Book of Quotations) tracks it to the Strand Magazine, 1942, but no Churchill connection has been found.
No attribution is found for any of the above. Please contact us if you can provide reliable sources. For more on Churchill’s quotes, see this section.
Get the Churchill Bulletin delivered to your inbox once a month.