Politics & Media
Jan 22, 2024, 06:28AM

DeSantis on Churchill

Examining a bogus quote.

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“Winston Churchill once remarked that success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts,” said Ron DeSantis, bowing out of the presidential race. That sounded like one of those bogus “inspirational” quotes that circulate on the internet, and indeed it was.

The International Churchill Society has stated it’s a false quote, basing this assessment on “careful research in the canon of fifty million words by and about Churchill, including all of his books, articles, speeches and papers.” The society notes a couple of real Churchill quotes about success that aren’t similar, including: “No one can guarantee success in war, but only deserve it.”

The Churchill Project at Hillsdale College has also dismissed the “success is not final” quote, along with others attributed to Churchill, among them: “If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary… Courage is what it takes to get up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit back and listen… Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell so that they will ask you the way… God created France for its beauty and the French to compensate…” The last at least sounds like Churchill.

Richard M. Langworth, senior fellow at Hillsdale, put the “success” line on a list of “non-quotes” that he says he “will not dignify” by placing in quote marks. A book Langworth edited, Churchill By Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations, relegates it to an appendix titled “Red Herrings: False Attributions,” according to Quote Investigator, an excellent website that researches attributions. (I mention the website since I don’t have Churchill By Himself on hand; I was offered a review copy years ago, and turned it down, incorrectly believing I’d never have occasion to write about a book of quotations. I can see through a Google book search that the line is mentioned in the book, but not the context, and at Amazon I have access only to an irrelevant sample. Digital tools for searching within books have declined in quality and availability in recent years, a trend occurring with digital capacities more broadly and aptly called “enshittification.”)

Quote Investigator has delved into sources that may have given rise to the fake quote, including a 1938 Budweiser ad that appeared in newspapers and contained the following text, including the ellipsis: “Men with the spirit of youth pioneered our America… men with vision and sturdy confidence. They found contentment in the thrill of action, knowing that success was never final and failure never fatal. It was courage that counted. Isn’t opportunity in America today greater than it was in the days of our grateful forefathers? Good!”

That ad copy may have been cobbled together from earlier sources, as Quote Investigator describes. In 1948, Forbes magazine’s section “Thoughts on the Business of Life” offered “Success is never final and Failure never fatal. It’s courage that counts,” attributing this to what Quote Investigator calls “someone named George F. Tilton.” According to Wikipedia, “George Fred Tilton (1861–1932) was an American master mariner, whaler, storyteller, and author who went on his first whaling trip at age 14.”

“The linkage to Churchill appeared in the 1960s and has no substantive support,” Quote Investigator reports. In 1968, a Pennsylvania newspaper reported that football coach Joe Paterno had used it, citing the British leader, in a speech to high school athletes: “Success is never final; failure is never fatal; the only thing that counts is courage.” A variant of the quote (“Success isn’t permanent, and failure isn’t fatal”) was later attributed to football coach Mike Ditka.

“Ron DeSantis Ends Campaign With Fake Quote From Winston Churchill,” reported Forbes in an online piece by senior contributor Matt Novak shortly after DeSantis’s statement. That piece didn’t, however, note Forbes’ own role in publicizing a version of the quote in 1948.

—Follow Kenneth Silber on Threads: @kennethsilber

  • Surprised to learn that the "You have enemies? Good..." Churchill quote, which I'd long thought was real, isn't either. https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2024/01/22/ron-desantis-winston-churchill/ It's misattributed to Churchill based on something Victor Hugo wrote. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2018/09/11/deed/

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  • DeSantis was a star athlete at Yale, maybe he got it from JoePa or Ditka. Nice piece and the linked "enshittification" thing was great too.

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  • Excellent update on enshittification. https://www.ft.com/content/6fb1602d-a08b-4a8c-bac0-047b7d64aba5?fbclid=IwAR2SjZeDHvz1DpVADuDYpTO0k2LmHqcJPRunDOOQDhW0uK1kXKGbAUUIXWw

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