Saturday, July 20, 2013

Not the Most Words, Just the Right Ones

If you're a politician and you're looking for the right words, there are plenty of people to quote. You have the "go to" guys like Kennedy ("Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country") and FDR ("The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"). If want something more international, there's Churchill ("The problems of victory are more agreeable than those of defeat, but they are no less difficult"), Gandhi ("You must be the change you wish to see in the world") or Mandela ("It always seems impossible until it's done"). And there's good stuff from losers as well as winners, such as 12 time Presidential candidate Harold Stassen ("I don't care to be involved in the crash-landing unless I can be in on the take-off").

Of course, you're not just limited to fellow pols. You got your religious leaders (John XXIII: "Anybody can be Pope; the proof of this is that I have become one"), your revolutionaries (Che Guevara: "The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall"), your philosophers (Blaise Pascal: "Small minds are concerned with the extraordinary, great minds with the ordinary"). There's also the occasional ordinary citizen who says something memorable, assuming someone writes it down (Anonymous: "Nobody knows the age of the human race, but everybody agrees that it is old enough to know better").

The goal in all cases is to sound smart, be it for validation or inspiration. In that light, one wonders about the choice of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning diplomat and Egypt's most prominent liberal. In the midst of that country's most recent upheaval, ElBaradei emerged as a possible president. In a recent wide ranging interview, he spoke of security, democracy and urged calm and respect. He recalled the birth of the movement, the so-called Arab Spring. And he argued that the military takeover (not a coup!) was the "least painful option." And then to drive home his point about the chance being given to the Egyptian people, he turned to words of wisdom from one of the world's great philosophers: "As Yogi Berra said, ‘it's déjà vu all over again.'"  

Yes, Yogi Berra. The same guy who said, "You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six." And "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." Not to mention, "You wouldn't have won if we'd beaten you." It's not that ElBaradei is wrong; they are right back where they started 18 months ago. It's just that, even assuming the typical Egyptian knows who Yogi is, it's hard to take the man who might be president seriously when he falls back on the wisdom of the same guy who said, "Pair up in threes."

While hardly a trend, the idea of quoting popular personalities isn't unheard of. In a debate in the Senate, Marco Rubio quoted Jay Z: "It's funny what seven days can change, it was all good just a week ago." Christine Radogno , the minority leader of the Illinois House, referenced Wu-Tang rapper Raekwon, saying "It's like he says. CREAM: Cash rules everything around me." She then uttered perhaps for the first (and last) time in a Senate debate the chorus: "dolla dolla bill ya'll." And who can forget Herman Cain's suspension of his bid for the presidency by saying "Life can be a challenge. Life can seem impossible. It's never easy when there's so much on the line. But you and I can make a difference. There's a mission just for you and me." Not a bad sentiment, until he revealed his source: "I believe these words came from the Pokémon movie."

Even though Cain was wrong about the quote's origin (it came from Donna Summer's 1999 disco hit and theme from the movie "Power of One"), the point is taken. Sometimes there are more eloquent constructions than your own. And the smart leader finds a way to use them to their advantage. And so don't be surprised if ElBaradei, should he indeed get the nod to run one of the most strategically important countries in the Middle East, stands in front of all Egyptians and decides that the best distillation of their future comes by massaging the words of an old Yankee: "We have arrived at a fork in the road. Let us take it."


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves quotes. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter 

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