Familiar Misquotations

Introduction: A "familiar misquotation" is a misleading quote that finds its way repeatedly into print or conversation. Moreover, each example below has been used as a premiss to advance some argument. The examples that follow fall into one or more of the following categories:

If you know of any familiar misquotations that should be included but aren't, wonder whether some quote is in fact genuine, or have any comments or questions about this feature, please let me know.

Index
Adams, John Bradlee, Ben Cheney, Richard Gates, Bill
Gore, Al Hecht, Ben Hitler, Adolf Holmes, Oliver Wendell
Jefferson, Thomas Kennan, George Kennedy, John F. Lee, Robert E.
Madison, James McIntyre, Jamie O'Brien, Danielle Rice, Condoleezza
Sanger, Margaret Trump, Donald Walter, Mike Wilson, Charles

John Adams

Quote:

This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!

Exposition: This quote is sometimes cited by people who argue against religion and want to appeal to Adams' authority, or who use the quote as evidence that the Founding Fathers were opposed to religion.

Context:

Twenty times, in the course of my late Reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it"!!! But in this exclamati[on] I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly1. Without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell.2

Exposure: The contextomy is in quotation marks in Adams' letter, which is an important part of the context, since it shows that Adams is not endorsing that sentiment, but in fact rejecting it.3

Examples:


Ben Bradlee

Quote:

At a recent symposium sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, Ben Bradlee, editor of The Washington Post, said: "To hell with the news! I'm no longer interested in news. I'm interested in causes. We don't print the truth. We don't pretend to print the truth. We print what people tell us. It's up to the public to decide what's true."4

Exposition: This quote is used by critics of the press as evidence of a major American newspaper editor advocating activism rather than news reporting.

Context:

…[A]fter reporting that two prominent journalists had said in a panel discussion that their organizations had crossed the line from objective reporting to advocacy, I wrote: "Ben Bradlee said he had no problem with what his fellow panelists were saying, but he warned there was Ďa minor danger in saying it, because as soon as you say, "To hell with the news, I'm no longer interested in news, I'm interested in causes," you've got a whole kooky constituency to respond to, which you can waste a lot of time on.'" At a different time and place, Bradlee had also said, "We don't print the truth. We don't pretend to print the truth. We print what people tell us. It is up to the public to decide what is true."5

Exposure:

Example: Ted Lang, "The Media Middle: 'To Hell with the News'" Ether Zone, 10/8/2001.


Richard Cheney

Quote:

We believe he [Saddam Hussein] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.

Exposition: This quote has been used repeatedly by people who opposed the invasion of Iraq, and who use it as evidence that the Bush administration had justified that invasion on the basis of Iraq possessing nuclear weapons.

Context:

Tim Russert: What do you think is the most important rationale for going to war with Iraq?

Cheney: Well, I think I've just given it, Tim, in terms of the combination of his development and use of chemical weapons, his development of biological weapons, his pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Russert: And even though the International Atomic Energy Agency said he does not have a nuclear program, we disagree?

Cheney: I disagree, yes. … Let's talk about the nuclear proposition for a minute. … In the late '70s, Saddam Hussein acquired nuclear reactors from the French. 1981, the Israelis took out the Osirak reactor and stopped his nuclear weapons development at the time. Throughout the '80s, he mounted a new effort. I was told when I was defense secretary before the Gulf War that he was eight to 10 years away from a nuclear weapon. And we found out after the Gulf War that he was within one or two years of having a nuclear weapon because he had a massive effort under way that involved four or five different technologies for enriching uranium to produce fissile material. We know that based on intelligence that he has been very, very good at hiding these kinds of efforts. He's had years to get good at it and we know he has been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons. And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.8

Exposure: The context makes it clear that Cheney was claiming―probably falsely―that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program, not that it had acquired actual nuclear weapons. Most contextomies get passed around among advocates of a position to the point that their original source is obscured. This is a rare contextomy whose source is known, namely, an article by Dana Milbank that appeared the day after the interview from which the quote was contextomized9. Milbank later used the quote in the "Verbatim" feature of his column, and a correction from Cheney's office was soon appended, but it was too late. The contextomy had metastasized, spreading so rapidly among critics of the war in Iraq that it was impossible to stop, no matter how often or publicly it was corrected10.

Example: Timothy Noah, "Whopper of the Week: Donald Rumsfeld", Slate, 5/23/2003


Bill Gates

Quote:

The world today has 6.8 billion people. Thatís headed up to about 9 billion. Now if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that by perhaps 10 or 15 percent.

Exposition: This quote has been used by some―including some anti-vaccine activists―to suggest that Gates was advocating somehow killing a billion people with "new vaccines, health care, [and] reproductive health services". I won't link to any webpages that use this quote out of context to make outrageously false accusations, because I don't want to send traffic to those who are either dishonest or recklessly indifferent to the truth. However, if you don't believe me, you can simply do a websearch on the truncated quote, which should bring up many examples.

Context:

CO2 is warming the planet, and the equation on CO2 is actually a very straightforward one. … Now, we put out a lot of carbon dioxide every year…. And, somehow, we have to make changes that will bring that down to zero. It's been constantly going up. … This equation has four factors, a little bit of multiplication: So, you've got a thing on the left, CO2, that you want to get to zero, and that's going to be based on the number of people, the services each person's using on average, the energy on average for each service, and the CO2 being put out per unit of energy. So, let's look at each one of these and see how we can get this down to zero. Probably, one of these numbers is going to have to get pretty near to zero. Now that's back from high school algebra, but let's take a look. First, we've got population. The world today has 6.8 billion people. That's headed up to about nine billion. Now, if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that by, perhaps, 10 or 15 percent, but there we see an increase of about 1.3. The second factor is the services we use. … In the rich world, perhaps the top one billion, we probably could cut back and use less, but every year, this number, on average, is going to go up, and so, over all, that will more than double the services delivered per person. … Now, efficiency, E, the energy for each service, here finally we have some good news. We have something that's not going up. … So let's look at this fourth factor―this is going to be a key one―and this is the amount of CO2 put out per each unit of energy. And so the question is: Can you actually get that to zero?11

Exposure: The notion that Gates is advocating reducing the population of the planet by a billion people comes from taking 15% of 6.8 billion, which is a little over a billion. However, it's clear from the full context of the quote that Gates is not talking about reducing the size of the population at all, but reducing its growth, which is why he finishes the sentence with "but there we see an increase of about 1.3 [billion]". In other words, if the amount of population increase were lower by 10%, the world's population would stabilize at around 8.1 billion instead of 9 billion. That is, 90% of 9 billion is 8.1 billion―which is lower by 10%―but 8.1=6.8 + 1.3, so that is the current population together with an additional 1.3 billion. That's where the 1.3 comes from!

Now, Gates was not as clear as he should have been, so that some of those who misinterpreted his remarks may have been genuinely confused. However, others have twisted his words to claim that he was advocating a billion decrease in population, when he's actually talking about over a billion increase.

Another source of confusion in this contextomy is Gates' reference to vaccination. It's obvious how reproductive health care can contribute to lower population growth, but how does health care in general or vaccination specifically do so? If anything, one would think that improved health care and increased vaccination would lead to larger population growth, and indeed they have done so in the past. Thankfully, Gates himself explained elsewhere his thinking on the matter:

When Melinda and I first started our giving, in the late 1990s, our focus was on reproductive health rather than childhood deaths. We felt that giving mothers the tools to limit their family size to what they wanted would have a catalytic effect by reducing population growth and making it easier to feed, educate, and provide jobs for the children who were born. … A surprising but critical fact we learned was that reducing the number of deaths actually reduces population growth. … Contrary to the Malthusian view that population will grow to the limit of however many kids can be fed, in fact parents choose to have enough kids to give them a high chance that several will survive to support them as they grow old. As the number of kids who survive to adulthood goes up, parents can achieve this goal without having as many children. … This was a huge revelation for Melinda and me. It is why we expanded our focus from reproductive health to all of the major infectious diseases.12

So, no, Bill Gates didn't just happen to blurt out on a video that you can view for yourself above that he wants a billion people to die. Nor did he accidentally reveal in that same public video that vaccines actually kill people instead of saving lives. Rather, the people who make such claims are either liars or just can't be bothered to find out the truth before accusing someone of wanting to be the greatest mass murderer in human history.


Al Gore

Quote:

The Pacific yew can be cut down and processed to produce a potent chemical, taxol, which offers some promise of curing forms of lung, breast, and ovarian cancer in patients who otherwise would quickly die. It seems an easy choice―sacrifice a tree for a human life―until one learns that three trees must be destroyed for each patient treated.13

Exposition: This quote has been used to criticize Gore for caring excessively for trees as opposed to people. For instance, a 2000 retrospective on Gore's 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, from which the quote is taken, claims: "While the 1992 Gore loved nature, his feelings for his fellow man were more nuanced." The above quote then appears, followed by the parenthetical remark: "There may not be 'harsh choices' between the environment and the economy, but choosing between trees and people can be a hard call."

Context:

…[C]onsider the recent controversy over the yew tree, a temperate forest species, one variety of which now grows only in the Pacific Northwest. The Pacific yew can be cut down and processed to produce a potent chemical, taxol, which offers some promise of curing certain forms of lung, breast, and ovarian cancer in patients who would otherwise quickly die. It seems an easy choice―sacrifice the tree for a human life―until one learns that three trees must be destroyed for each patient treated, that only specimens more than a hundred years old contain the potent chemical in their bark, and that there are very few of these yews remaining on earth. Suddenly we must confront some tough questions. How important are the medical needs of future generations? Are those of us alive today entitled to cut down all of these trees to extend the lives of a few of us, even if it means that this unique form of life will disappear forever, thus making it impossible to save human lives in the future?14

Exposure: In context, Gore is not saying that three trees are equal in value to one human life. Rather, the questions that Gore raises have to do with the long-term effect of cutting down the trees on the lives and health of future generations. The moral dilemma is not a choice between the lives of trees and the lives of people, but between the lives of present people and those of future folks.

Examples: Some online quotation sites include this contextomy in its truncated form with no notice that it is misleading. It appears that many such sites have serious problems with fake and misleading quotes15, so treat them with warranted skepticism. As Ronald Reagan almost said: "Don't trust―verify!"


Ben Hecht

Quote:

One of the finest things ever done by the mob was the crucifixion of Christ. Intellectually it was a splendid gesture. But trust the mob to bungle. If I had charge of executing Christ, I would have handled it differently. You see what I would have done was had him shipped to Rome and fed to the lions. They never could have made a savior out of mince meat.16

Context: The context of the quote is a novel in which it is spoken by a fictional character. There is no more reason to think that it represents the views of Ben Hecht than there is to think that the words of Iago represent the opinions of Shakespeare.

Exposure: Boller and George trace the use of this contextomy back to a 1964 antisemitic leaflet, and the quote continues to be used today by Christian antisemites to whip up anger at Jews among Christians.

Examples: The quote can be found on many antisemitic websites, but I won't link to any specific examples for obvious reasons.


Adolf Hitler

Quote:

The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might, and the Republic is in danger. Yes―danger from within and without. We need law and order! Without it our nation cannot survive.

Exposition: This is not a contextomy, nor is it a misattribution or mistranslation; rather, it was simply made up out of whole cloth and falsely attributed to Hitler. The point of doing this was to tar Richard Nixon by association.

In 1968, Nixon ran for president and won on a platform of restoring law and order to a country in turmoil. In that awful year, there were political assassinations―MLK and RFK―riots in many cities, including Chicago during the Democratic convention, as well as on college campuses. Even though we don't know who wrote the passage in question, we can be pretty sure that it was produced in '68, because it was at this time that the slogan "law and order" was popularized by Nixon's campaign.

Exposure: It's not known who created this false quote, but an early appearance was in a column by Jerome Beatty, Jr. in Saturday Review magazine from 196917. According to John Lofton, who seems to have been the first to research the alleged quote:

A check with Beatty reveals that he got the quote from a monthly newsletter edited by Dixon Gayer, a professor of journalism at California State College at Long Beach. Gayer got the quote from a Professor Leroy Hardy in that school's Political Science Department who said that he had copied the quotation from the office door of Professor Larry Adams of the Political Science Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Professor Adams is unable to remember where he obtained the original quote.18

And so the trail goes cold in early '69.

It's now nearly half-a-century since this faux quote was created, and almost as long since it was debunked. Yet some people continue to quote it as though it were for real, including some online quote sites. It's a zombie quote: it's dead, but it keeps coming back from the grave, and it wants to eat your brain. As Ralph Keyes wrote:

Do we really want to know when we misquote? It's not always clear that we do. … This is understandable. … In many cases, we prefer blissful ignorance. Even quotations known to be apocryphal―Hitler on disorderly youth…―live on long after they've been debunked. … A good misquote never dies.19

Example:

Nixon as Hitler

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Quote:

Truth is the majority vote of that nation that could lick all others.

Exposition: This quote is usually used as evidence that Supreme Court Justice Holmes was advocating a "might makes right" view of truth that supposedly has badly affected subsequent jurisprudence.

Context:

I used to say when I was young, that truth was the majority vote of that nation that could lick all others. …I think that the statement was correct insofar as it implied that our test of truth is a reference to either a present or an imagined future majority in favor of our view.20

Exposure: One part of the context that is usually omitted from this quote is that it comes not from a court decision, but from a law review article. Moreover, in that article Holmes is not asserting the comment, but quoting and correcting his younger self. One may well disagree with Holmes' view of truth, but it is not the straw man that is usually attacked when this contextomy makes an appearance.

Example: C. Everett Koop & Francis A. Schaeffer, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (Revised Edition, 1986), p. 6.


Thomas Jefferson

Quote:

Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man.

Exposition: This quote is used by some who argue that the United States is not a Christian nation on the grounds that one of her Founding Fathers, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and later President, was anti-Christian.

Context:

Those who live by mystery & charlatanerie, fearing you would render them useless by simplifying the Christian philosophy,―the most sublime & benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man,―endeavored to crush your well-earnt & well-deserved fame.21

Exposure: Even taken out of context, Jefferson's quote does not support the claim that the United States is not a Christian nation. At best, the quote seems to show hostility on the part of Jefferson toward Christianity. However, Jefferson's religious beliefs were complicated and, thus, likely to mislead many people today. He called himself a "Christian", but did not believe in the deity of Jesus. However, he was not an atheist, but a deist who believed in a god who created the world but did not intervene in its affairs, thus ruling out miracles.22

The quote is taken from a letter to Joseph Priestley, who is best remembered today as a scientist, but was also a minister and author of An History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782). It may be this book that Jefferson alludes to in his compliment to Priestley for "simplifying the Christian philosophy", which while "the most sublime and benevolent" is also the "most perverted system that ever shone on man". Jefferson here uses the word "perverted" in its sense of turned away from the right course, which is similar in sense to Priestley's use of the word "corruption".23

Both Jefferson and Priestley believed that Christianity had been corrupted and perverted from its original, simpler form. Jefferson was, indeed, hostile to this corrupt form of Christianity, but he simultaneously believed that the philosophy of Jesus was "the most sublime and benevolent…system that ever shone on man." In a letter to Benjamin Rush, he explained:

To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.24

In other words, Jesus was a man, a great man, even the greatest of all men, but just a man. Moreover, he was a man who did not claim to be anything more. A letter to John Adams makes the same point as that in the letter to Priestley:

The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. … But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.25

Americans who are traditional Christians and those who are atheists would both like to claim Jefferson for their side, but the truth is that he was on neither side.

Example: This contextomy appears onscreen in comedian Bill Maher's documentary Religulous (2008) during a scene discussing the Founding Fathers and religion with Ray Suarez. Maher asks Suarez:

How did this country get to be a Christian nation? I've read a lot of quotes from all the Founding Fathers. There are a lot of quotes that explicitly say we're not a Christian nation.

At this point, three quotes appear on the screen, including the Adams one, above, and this one.


Quote:

No man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.

Exposition: Just as some gun rights advocates quote Hitler as a proponent of gun registration, others quote the Founding Fathers in support of unrestricted access to firearms.

Exposure: This is a double-barreled misquote, with both sentences misleading but in different ways, so I'll discuss the two separately:

  1. "No man shall ever be debarred the use of arms."

    Sometimes the quote is worded thus: "No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms1", which is closer. Jefferson did, indeed, write something similar to this in the first draft of a constitution for Virginia, namely: "No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms.2" In other words, "freeman" is a single word, not two, which is important because slavery was legal at the time in Virginia, and a "freeman" meant, specifically, a man who was not a slave.

  2. "The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government."

    Unlike the first sentence, there is no reason to think that Jefferson said or wrote this or anything similar3. Its earliest appearance in print seems to have been 1989, so it was probably concocted at about that time or shortly before.

Misquoting Hitler in favor of gun registration smears by association those who support restrictions on guns, whereas bogus quotes of the Founding Fathers, such as Jefferson, do the reverse: instead of damning gun restrictions by associating them with the Nazis, they appeal to the authority of Founders to support unrestricted access to guns. Given the second amendment to the constitution, it ought to be easy to find genuine quotes from the Founders to support that right without having to make them up, but maybe it's just easier to invent them than do boring research.

Example:

Unfortunately, most Americans don't have the foggiest notion of why the Framers of the Constitution, through the Second Amendment, guaranteed our right to keep and bear arms. Our leftist establishment would like us to believe the Second Amendment was written to protect our duck- and deer-hunting rights. Don't take my word―read what was actually said during the constitutional debates. Thomas Jefferson said: [Here follows the full misquote, above.]4

Notes:

  1. For example, see: "The Writings of Thomas Jefferson―Truth! & Unproven!", Truth or Fiction, 3/17/2015
  2. "No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms (Spurious Quotation)", Monticello, Accessed: 4/10/2021
  3. Anna Berkes, "Strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms (Spurious Quotation)", Monticello, 1/9/2012
  4. Walter Williams, "To Keep And Bear Arms", 3/29/2000. To his credit, Williams included the correct version of the first sentence without the bogus second sentence on a page of his website: "Right to Keep and Bear Arms", accessed: 4/10/2021.

George Kennan

Quote:

[W]e have about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population…. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives…. We should cease to talk about vague and…unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

Exposition: This quote is usually used to argue that Kennan was advocating American imperialism or domination over the rest of the world without regard to moral concerns, which makes his famous "realism" about foreign policy sound callously cynical.

Context:

My main impression with regard to the position of this Government with regard to the Far East is that we are greatly over-extended in our whole thinking about what we can accomplish, and should try to accomplish, in that area. …

It is urgently necessary that we recognize our own limitations as a moral and ideological force among the Asiatic peoples.

Our political philosophy and our patterns for living have very little applicability to masses of people in Asia. They may be all right for us, with our highly developed political traditions running back into the centuries and with our peculiarly favorable geographic position; but they are simply not practical or helpful, today, for most of the people in Asia.

This being the case, we must be very careful when we speak of exercising "leadership" in Asia. We are deceiving ourselves and others when we pretend to have the answers to the problems which agitate many of these Asiatic peoples.

Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.

For these reasons, we must observe great restraint in our attitude toward the Far Eastern areas. The peoples of Asia and of the Pacific area are going to go ahead, whatever we do, with the development of their political forms and mutual interrelationships in their own way. … All of the Asiatic peoples are faced with the necessity for evolving new forms of life to conform to the impact of modern technology. This process of adaptation will also be long and violent. It is not only possible, but probable, that in the course of this process many peoples will fall, for varying periods, under the influence of Moscow, whose ideology has a greater lure for such peoples, and probably greater reality, than anything we could oppose to it. All this, too, is probably unavoidable; and we could not hope to combat it without the diversion of a far greater portion of our national effort than our people would ever willingly concede to such a purpose.

In the face of this situation we would be better off to dispense now with a number of the concepts which have underlined our thinking with regard to the Far East. We should dispense with the aspiration to "be liked" or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers' keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and―for the Far East―unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.26

Exposure: In context, Kennan's position was almost the exact opposite of the way it is portrayed by those who use this contextomy. For one thing, the quote comes from a discussion of American policy towards Asia, and not from a general treatment of foreign policy. Moreover, Kennan was arguing that the United States had limited power in Asia, and should not overestimate its ability to advance idealistic objectives, such as democratization. Therefore, Kennan suggests that the U.S. not attempt to impose its own political ideals on Asian countries, for whom such ideals are "unreal". The most misleading ellipsis in the quoted passage is the final one, omitting the phrase "for the Far East", which indicates that Kennan is not saying that the objectives of human rights, rising living standards, and democratization are "unreal" for him, or for the U.S., but "for the Far East". One may well disagree with this claim, but it is a far different one from that suggested by the quote taken out of context.

Example: Anatol Rapoport, "Conceptions of World Order: Building Peace in the Third Millennium" (1997), p. 10.


John F. Kennedy

Quote:

Narrator: [President John F.] Kennedy…finds himself embroiled in Laos and Vietnam.

Walter Cronkite: We've got our difficulties there.

JFK: Unless a greater effort is made by the government to win popular support, I don't think that the war can be won out there. It's their war. They're the ones who have to win it or lose it.27

Exposition: Oliver Stone's movie JFK advances a conspiracy theory in which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated because he intended to withdraw American military advisors from South Vietnam. The above quote from an interview with reporter Walter Cronkite occurs in a documentary-like sequence during the film's credits. Kennedy's apparent pessimism, coupled with his assertion that the war must be won by the Vietnamese people, seems to support Stone's theory.

Context:

Cronkite: Mr. President, the only hot war we've got running at the moment is of course the one in Viet-Nam, and we've got our difficulties there, quite obviously. …

JFK: I don't think that unless a greater effort is made by the government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it, the people of Viet-Nam, against the Communists. …[I]n the final analysis it is the people and the government itself who have to win or lose this struggle. All we can do is help, and we are making it very clear, but I don't agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. I know people don't like Americans to be engaged in this kind of an effort. Forty-seven Americans have been killed in combat with the enemy, but this is a very important struggle even though it is far away.28

Exposure: The context of the quote speaks for itself. While no one can know what Kennedy might have done as president if he had not been killed, his remarks in the interview with Cronkite in no way support the claim that he would have withdrawn the advisors. In fact, his subsequent statement that it would be a mistake to do so contradicts Stone's theory, which is no doubt why it ended up on the cutting room floor.


Robert E. Lee

Quote:

There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.

Exposition: This quote from Lee is used as evidence that Lee opposed slavery, which is sometimes part of an argument that he was not attempting to defend slavery by fighting against the Union.

Context:

There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it is a greater evil to the white than to the colored race. While my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more deeply engaged for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things. How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence. … While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward, and give it the aid of our prayers, let us leave the progress as well as the results in the hands of Him who sees the end, who chooses to work by slow influences, and with whom a thousand years are but as a single day.29

Exposure: The context of the quote shows that Lee's attitude toward slavery was not as simple as opposition. While he did consider it "a moral and political evil", he seems to have viewed it as a necessary evil, at least for the foreseeable future, for the benefit of the slaves themselves.

Example: Richard Poe, "The Lessons of Robert E. Lee", Front Page Magazine, 11/8/2001


James Madison

Quote:

…James Madison…leaned toward deism…. He spoke of the "almost fifteen centuries" during which Christianity had been on trial: "What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution."30

Exposition: This quote is used as evidence that Madison, a "Founding Father" of the United States and one of the authors of its constitution, was not a Christian, but was critical of that religion.

Context:

…[E]xperience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.31

Exposure: The quote leaves out the crucial part of the sentence showing that Madison was not arguing against Christianity per se, but against its legal establishment, or the establishment of any religion. Moreover, given that he was writing in 1785, the Christian religion had been "on trial" for almost eighteen, as opposed to fifteen, centuries. Madison was presumably dating the legal establishment of Christianity to the reign of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, in the early fourth century, that is, "almost fifteen centuries" earlier. Madison's words were taken from a lengthy argument against a specific bill in Virginia's legislature which would have levied a tax in order to financially support the teaching of Christianity, and he argued against such a tax on the grounds that past legal support of Christianity had led to its corruption.

Example: Kenneth J. Kahn, "Letters: Founding Father?", The New York Times Magazine, 2/28/2010. A recent sighting of the contextomy, obviously taken from the Nation article.


Quote:

Religion is the [basis and] foundation of government.32

Exposition: This contextomy has the opposite purpose of the preceding one: instead of portraying Madison as an opponent of religion, it makes it appear that he believed religion to be a vital support to government. As a result, the quote is used mostly by those who wish to argue against the separation of church and state, though the quote appears in at least one online dictionary of quotations.

Context:

…"[T]he equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his Religion according to the dictates of conscience" is held by the same tenure with all our other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consult the "Declaration of those rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basis and foundation of Government," it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis.31

Exposure: Interestingly, this quote has the same source as the previous one, thus showing that it's possible with careful pruning of context to make the same document seem to say opposite things. Another unusual thing about this contextomy is that, with the exception of "is", the words quoted are not actually the words of Madison, as is indicated by their being enclosed within quotation marks. They appear to come from Virginia's Declaration of Rights33, which was a forerunner of the Bill of Rights. The first part seems to be paraphrased from the last section of that declaration, where freedom of religion "is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis" among the other rights listed in the declaration. The last part is a paraphrase of the declaration's opening sentence, which serves as a name for that document.

As noted in the previous entry, Madison is here arguing against a bill in the General Assembly of Virginia to spend state money to pay for the teaching of Christianity. In this section, he is arguing that the bill would violate Virginia's declaration of rights in which freedom of religion is a right "held by the same tenure with all our other rights", and which "cannot be less dear to us" than those other rights. "The basis and foundation of Government"―specifically, the government of Virginia rather than government in general―refers not to religion, but to the rights enumerated in the declaration, including the right to free exercise of religion. This is part of a legal argument against a specific bill, rather than a philosophical discussion of the foundations of government, but it is consistent with Madison's support for separation of church and state.

Example: "James Madison", The Conservative Christian Resource Center


Jamie McIntyre

Quote:

From my close-up inspection, there's no evidence of a plane having crashed anywhere near the Pentagon.

Exposition: This quote comes from an interview with CNN reporter McIntyre at the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001, after a hijacked American Airlines plane had struck the building. The quote is used by conspiracy theorists as evidence that no plane hit the Pentagon.

Context:

Judy Woodruff: Jamie, Aaron was talking earlier―or one of our correspondents was talking earlier―I think, actually, it was Bob Franken―with an eyewitness who said it appeared that that Boeing 757, the American jet, American Airline jet, landed short of the Pentagon. Can you give us any better idea of how much of the plane actually impacted the building?

McIntyre: You know, it might have appeared that way, but from my close-up inspection, there's no evidence of a plane having crashed anywhere near the Pentagon. The only site is the actual site of the building that's crashed in, and as I said, the only pieces left that you can see are small enough that you can pick up in your hand. There are no large tail sections, wing sections, fuselage, nothing like that anywhere around, which would indicate that the entire plane crashed into the side of the Pentagon and then caused the side to collapse.34

Exposure: It's clear from the full context that McIntyre was answering a specific question from CNN anchor Judy Woodruff as to whether the plane had crashed short of the Pentagon. His mention of the lack of large pieces of debris refers to the area around the Pentagon, as opposed to inside the building itself. His denial of evidence that a plane crashed "near" the Pentagon is not a denial that one hit it.

This contextomy also includes a rare example of what logician Morris Engel called "the fallacy of accent", that is, a misleading change of emphasis35. In the audio of the interview, McIntyre clearly emphasizes the word "near": "there's no evidence of a plane having crashed anywhere near the Pentagon", as opposed to having crashed into the Pentagon, for which there was plenty of evidence. When the quote is printed, this emphasis is usually left out, which changes McIntyre's meaning.

In a later interview, McIntyre confirmed that his statement had been quoted out of context, and that he had not denied that a plane had hit the Pentagon:

The Web sites often take statements out of context, such as this exchange from CNN in which I, myself, appear to be questioning whether a plane really hit the building…. In fact, I was answering a question based on an eyewitness account who thought the American Airlines plane landed short of the Pentagon. I was―indicated there was no crash site near the Pentagon, only at the Pentagon.36

Danielle O'Brien

Quote:

The speed, the maneuverability, the way that he turned, we all thought in the radar room, all of us experienced air traffic controllers, that that was a military plane.37

Exposition: Danielle O'Brien was an air traffic controller on September 11th, 2001, when an American Airlines Boeing 757 was flown by hijackers into the Pentagon. The above quote was taken from an interview O'Brien did with ABC news about a month and a half later. This quote is frequently used by conspiracy theorists to argue that something other than an airliner hit the Pentagon. In particular, the French conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyssan used it in the above form in his book L'Effroyable imposture―translated as The Big Lie―and other conspiracy theorists seem to have picked it up from there, using it exactly as Meyssan quoted it without checking the original source.

In an email of October 10th, 2003, O'Brien put what she said in context:

Context:

Mr. Meyssan's book "9/11: The Big Lie" states that on September 11, 2001 I and my fellow air traffic controllers at Dulles airport had "no possible doubt" that the plane we saw approaching Washington, DC, which subsequently crashed into the Pentagon, "could not be a commercial airliner, but only a military aircraft" because of its speed and maneuverability. In the manner Mr. Meyssen took my statements from context and arranged them to support his theory, his conclusions are a blatant disregard for the truth. Upon initial impression, I considered the target, later confirmed to have been American Airlines flight 77, to possibly have been a military aircraft. In an interview with ABC's 20/20, I stated, "The speed, the maneuverability, the way that he turned, we all thought in the radar room, all of us experienced air traffic controllers, that that was a military plane. You don't fly a 757 in that manner. It's unsafe." Since that tragic day, I've realized it was never the intent of the hijacker to safely land American flight 77 anywhere. … If Mr. Meyssen had been interested in the full truth, many sources were available. There would have been no better witnesses than the aviation-trained, eye witnesses of Air Traffic Control. In that he never requested interviews of any of us who were there, his interest obviously lies not in revealing any truth, but in his personal financial gain.38

Condoleezza Rice

Quote:

There is a tie between Iraq and what happened on 9/11.

Exposition: This quote occurs in a clip near the end of Michael Moore's movie Fahrenheit 9/11, along with a few other short clips of George W. Bush and other officials in his administration. The series of clips occurs immediately after Moore's narration says:

…[A]ll [American soldiers] ask for in return is that we never send them into harm's way unless it's absolutely necessary. Will they ever trust us again?39

The final clip in the movie is former President Bush producing a "Bushism":

There's an old saying in Tennessee, I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee, that says: Fool me once, shame on―shame on you―fool me―you can't get fooled again.

Then Moore, as narrator, says:

For once, we agreed.

Clearly, Moore is suggesting that Rice's comment, along with the other quotes shown, had fooled people into thinking that the war in Iraq was necessary when it was not. This must be because Rice is claiming, falsely, that there is a connection between Iraq and the events of September 11th, 2001.

Context:

Oh, indeed there is a tie between Iraq and what happened on 9/11. It's not that Saddam Hussein was somehow himself and his regime involved in 9/11, but, if you think about what caused 9/11, it is the rise of ideologies of hatred that lead people to drive airplanes into buildings in New York. This is a great terrorist, international terrorist network that is determined to defeat freedom. It has perverted Islam from a peaceful religion into one in which they call on it for violence. And they're all linked. And Iraq is a central front because, if and when, and we will, we change the nature of Iraq to a place that is peaceful and democratic and prosperous in the heart of the Middle East, you will begin to change the Middle East.40

Exposure: A further point about Rice's statement is that it was made during an interview in November of 2003, and thus could not have been an attempt to "fool" the public into supporting an unnecessary invasion that had already occurred in March of the same year. In addition to taking Rice's sentence out of the context of her complete comment, Moore's movie also gives no indication of when the comment was made, thereby removing it from its context in time. The movie is, therefore, likely to give the viewer the impression that Rice claimed prior to the invasion that Iraq was behind 9/11, when she had actually denied after the invasion any such direct tie.


Margaret Sanger

Quote:

We want to exterminate the Negro population.

Exposition: Margaret Sanger was the founder of the Planned Parenthood Federation, and this quote is usually used by opponents of contraception or abortion in an attempt to discredit that organization. Some variants of the quote use a little more of its context, which was a letter to a physician working on the "Negro Project of the South", an attempt to increase access to education about contraception for blacks in the southern states.

Context:

There is only one thing that I would like to be in touch with and that is the Negro Project of the South…. The minister[']s work is…important and…he should be trained, perhaps by the Federation as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach. We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.41

Exposure:

Examples:


Quote:

I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world.

Exposition: As discussed under the previous quote, Sanger was the founder of Planned Parenthood and she is frequently contextomized, misquoted, or has quotes falsely attributed to her in order to attack that organization. The above contextomy was taken from a television interview she gave to reporter Mike Wallace.

Context:

Mike Wallace: Do you believe in sin? When I say believe I don't mean believe in committing sin do you believe there is such a thing as a sin?

Sanger: I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being, practically. Delinquents, prisoners, all sorts of things―just marked when they're born. That to me is the greatest sin that people can commit.42

Exposure: It's clear from the full context of the quote that Sanger was not making the absurd claim that having children is "the greatest sin in the world", or even that it is a sin at all. Rather, she meant that the greatest sin was to have children who will inherit diseases or have no chance in life―presumably due to poverty. Those who oppose birth control or abortion are entitled to disagree with her opinions, but they are not entitled to misrepresent what her opinions were. As Sanger says elsewhere in the same interview in regard to a different quote: "Honestly, where are these strange things coming from―that I said them?"

Example: Tantumblogo, "Margaret Sanger―one of historyís greatest monsters", A Blog for Dallas Area Catholics, 1/27/2014


Donald Trump

Quote:

"You had a group on one side who was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that, but I'll say it right now," [Trump] said in August [2017]. "You have people who are very fine people on both sides."43

Exposition:

The above quote of President Trump is taken from a press conference held three days after a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia turned into a riot. The quote has been used to claim that Trump was including the white supremacists, racists, or neo-Nazis who attended the rally among the "very fine people" there.

Context:

President Trump:… As I said, remember, Saturday, we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence. It has no place in America. … And you had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that. But Iíll say it right now.

Reporter: Do you think that what you call the alt-left is the same as neo-Nazis?

Trump: …Iíve condemned neo-Nazis. Iíve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee.…

Reporter: You said there was hatred, there was violence on both sides?

Trump: Well I do think thereís blame. Yes, I think there is blame on both sides. …

Reporter: The neo-Nazis started this thing. They showed up in Charlottesville to protest.

Trump: … They didnít put themselves down as neo-Nazis. And you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group―excuse me, excuse me―I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down, of to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name. … You had people and Iím not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally. You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. O.K.? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people but you also had troublemakers and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. You had a lot of bad people in the other group too.

Reporter: Who has the press treated unfairly? Sir, Iím sorry, I just didnít understand what you were saying. You were saying the press has treated white nationalists unfairly? I just didnít understand what you were saying.

Trump: No, no. There were people in that rally. I looked the night before. If you look, they were people protesting very quietly the taking down the statue of Robert E. Lee. I am sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day, it looked like they had some rough, bad people, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest. …44

Exposure:

I've included the lengthy excerpt from the press conference above to make it clear that Trump was not calling "neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them" "very fine people". Notice what follows the reference to "very fine people": "…Iím not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally." Despite this fact, the headline of the article from which I drew the quote above is, in part:

Trump Called White Supremacists 'Very Fine People'…

Given that headlines are often supplied by editors, one might be inclined to blame this one on a busy editor who gave the article only a superficial read. However, in this case, the headline is an accurate summary of the article beneath it, which begins: "President Donald Trump's harsh criticism of athletes who protested during the national anthem offered a stark contrast from his description of white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, whom he defended by saying that some were 'very fine people.'"

Moreover, headlines in other publications engaged in similar mischaracterizations of what Trump said:

Trump Defends White-Nationalist Protesters:
'Some Very Fine People on Both Sides'45

President Trump calls white supremacists Ďvery fine people'…46

This is a media-generated and now media-sustained myth. Many people, including reporters, have probably heard somewhere that Trump called white supremacists "very fine people", and they don't bother to check before spreading it further. How many people are going to track down and watch the video of the press conference, or read the transcript to check that these headlines and the reporting they're based on are accurate? Instead, they will rely on the reporters to do that. Unfortunately, the reporters didn't do, and still aren't doing, due diligence. Here's an egregious example from over a year-and-a-half later: "Instead of condemning the white nationalists in August 2017, Trump said there were 'very fine people on both sides.'"47 If saying "the white nationalists…should be condemned totally" doesn't condemn the white nationalists, what would?48


Update (4/28/2019): Since this entry was posted, former Vice President Joe Biden entered the already crowded field of Democratic candidates for President. In the video announcement of his candidacy, Biden alluded to the above contextomy:

Charlottesville is…home to a defining moment for this nation in the last few years. It was there on August of 2017 we saw Klansmen and white supremacists and neo-Nazis…. And they were met by a courageous group of Americans, and a violent clash ensued and a brave young woman lost her life. And thatís when we heard the words from the president of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were "some very fine people on both sides." Very fine people on both sides?49

This, of course, suggests that the people Trump was referring to as "very fine" included the "Klansmen and white supremacists and neo-Nazis", despite the fact that Trump explicitly excluded them. I suspect this gives us a good idea of what sort of campaign Biden will run.

One could pull this same trick on Biden by taking his words out of context: Did that "courageous group of Americans" who had a "violent clash" with the bad guys include the masked, club-wielding, black-shirted anarchists50? I assume that Biden didn't mean them even though, unlike Trump, he didn't make it explicit that they were excluded.


Update (4/30/2019): I didn't intend the last paragraph of the update, above, as a how-to guide, but see this:

Antifa is known for using violent means, including in protests against peaceful conservative speakers, free speech advocates and even journalists. The well-documented instances of violence include a protester repeatedly punching a man in the face, throwing water bottles and launching fireworks at police officers and starting fires on a college campus with Molotov cocktails. The Daily Caller News Foundationís reporting led to the arrest of an Antifa leader who stands accused of accosting and assaulting two Marines in Philadelphia. Former Vice President Joe Biden launched his campaign for president by praising the group. He referred to a group of protesters who gathered in Charlottesville, VA, and violently confronted white nationalists [as] "a courageous group of Americans."51

Of course, I doubt the author of the above excerpt read my update since I pointed out that this is a "trick" that involves taking Biden's words out of context in exactly the same way that Trump's were in the contextomy. Moreover, the way the excerpt is worded suggests that Biden praised Antifa by name, or in some other unambiguous way. The whole problem with the "courageous group of Americans" phrase is that it doesn't make clear who he was praising. Moreover, Biden never claimed that the courageous group in question "violently confronted white nationalists", which makes it sound as though they were the ones who initiated the violence. Rather, Biden said that "a violent clash ensued", which leaves it unclear exactly how it did ensue.

In any case, this is nice real-life example of the point I was trying to make in the original update: live by the contextomy, die by it.


Mike Walter

Quote:

It was like a cruise missile with wings. It went right there and slammed right into the Pentagon.

Exposition: This contextomy comes from a CNN interview with Mike Walter, a reporter for USA Today, who was an eyewitness to the crash of an American Airlines 757 into the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001. The quote is used by conspiracy theorists who claim that a missile struck the Pentagon rather than the airliner.

Context:

I was sitting in the northbound on 27 and the traffic was, you know, typical rush-hour―it had ground to a standstill. I looked out my window and I saw this plane, this jet, an American Airlines jet, coming. And I thought, "This doesn't add up, it's really low." And I saw it. I mean it was like a cruise missile with wings. It went right there and slammed right into the Pentagon.52

Exposure: Unlike many others who are contextomized, Walter is still alive to explain what he meant and how it feels to be quoted out of context:

Referring to the American Airlines jet metaphorically as a weapon, I'd described it as being like "a cruise missile with wings." It's tough being in journalism and seeing your own words being used to persuade people to believe something that simply isn't true. Anyone who has seen the full text of that interview knows that I was clearly talking about the American Airlines jet. Because that's what I saw.53

Charles Wilson

Quote:

What's good for General Motors is good for the country.

Exposition: This quote is used to suggest that large corporations and those who lead them take the unpatriotic attitude of putting the interests of their corporation before the national interest.

Context:

…[F]or years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.54

Exposure: Wilson was not reporting what he currently thought, but what he formerly thought. In fact, the quote as usually phrased turns his words around, since he did not say "what's good for G.M. is good for the country" but the reverse, though the substance of the quote is contained in the two words "vice versa".


Notes:

  1. Adams' boyhood parish priest and Latin school master.
  2. John Adams, Letter to Thomas Jefferson, 4/19/1817, p. 2. This is an image of a page from the handwritten manuscript. For a transcription, see: Lester J. Cappon, editor, The Adams-Jefferson Letters, Volume 2 (University of North Carolina Press, 1959), p. 509. Thanks to José Gabriel Pedroso Rosa for pointing out a mistake in the Context.
  3. See, also: Paul F. Boller, Jr. & John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, & Misleading Attributions (1989).
  4. Dixy Lee Ray & Lou Guzzo, Trashing the Planet: How Science Can Help Us Deal with Acid Rain, Depletion of the Ozone, and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things), (1990), p. 76.
  5. Reed Irvine, "AIM Report Notes from the Editor's Cuff", AIM Report, 5/2000, B.
  6. P. 184.
  7. David Brooks, "Journalists and Others for Saving the Planet", The Wall Street Journal, 10/5/1989.
  8. "Transcript for March 16", NBC News' Meet the Press, 3/16/2003.
  9. Dana Milbank, "Verbatim", The Washington Post, 5/20/2003.
  10. Here's a lengthy response to this example from reader Lemuel Schenck, together with my reply:
    I understand the subtle nuance of shifting from the prior statement that referred to the program and the quotes used to discredit him were made clear by the context that he really meant the program. What I am having a problem rectifying is who is really guilty of what.

    The context could be linked to the programs, which as you aptly point out was most likely a false claim by Cheney, but the way it is written he could have very well been using the same contextomy rather than the people spinning what he had said.

    Mr. Cheney seems to be rather well versed in contextomies as evident in even his everyday speech but especially in a political forum. You pointed out that his people were quick to "append" his comment, but as I see it that could have been required more because the people misunderstood what he said to be actually what he was trying to convey with his statement. As I read the statement, it suggests to me that he is suggesting exactly that Saddam had indeed acquired nuclear weapons by some method, possibly by reconstituting them.

    I am not sure if my explanation is exactly clear as if this is a double (or maybe triple with the appended statement) contextomy, let me give you an example of one that seems to parallel what I am trying to say. If you are a tourist around Jackson Square, you may very well be approached and challenged with this statement, "I bet you a dollar that I can tell you where you got them shoes" as he points to the shoes you are wearing. Of course, since there is no way for this stranger to know where you are from or where you actually bought your shoes, you take the bet. Well, you will lose as the response after the challenge is accepted is, "You got your shoes on your feet." The challenger is setting you up to fall into the contextomy. The mark assumes that he is talking about the context of where you purchased your shoes but the bet is lost because the mark did not realize that he was being set up with a misleading question.

    In this example, Cheney is trying to suggest that Saddam has nuclear weapons but not be caught in a direct lie, so he offers a contextomy to protect himself. He was, however, so clever in his statement that his statement taken exactly as he said it does indeed fit either position. He could be meaning that he has nuclear weapons or he could be saying that he has a reconstituted nuclear weapons program, which would have been enough to scare the public into giving him support. But since he walked too much on that slippery slope, he was caught in his own contextomy and had to append his statement.

    Now, I realize that this is a very fine point, but I would like to know if I am understanding this example correctly or if I am mistaken in the way I see this example being only half of what I consider an obvious example of some sort of double spin by a master in political spinning that was just not perfect enough to get by. I think that he said exactly what he meant to convey. I think that his only problem was that when he accidentally said exactly what he wanted people to think, he had to append it to have a way to claim not to have outright lied to bring us into the war that ensued at least partially because of this contextomy. We are still paying for it both in our economy and in the lives of the victims and their families.

    First of all, a technical point: The sucker bet example is amusing but not really a contextomy. Rather, the con artist is equivocating on the word "got", which can mean either "bought" or "physically located". The "mark" interprets the bet as a challenge to guess where the shoes were purchased, which is a good bet for the mark; whereas, the con artist intends the challenge to be to guess where the shoes are physically located, which is a sure thing. However, I take your point to be that Cheney was using an ambiguous statement to trick people into thinking that Saddam Hussein had acquired nuclear weapons.

    Now, not only did Cheney's office issue a clarification the next day of what he said, but Cheney himself later claimed that he misspoke―see: Cheney Clarifies "Reconstituted" Quote, 9/14/2003. I suppose if Cheney came out and admitted that he intentionally dropped the word "program" in an attempt to mislead the American people into war with Iraq, that you would believe him. However, I can't see what would constitute evidence that he misspoke that you wouldn't reject. When Cheney says that he misspoke, you think that is a lie. So, it's hard for me to imagine what kind of evidence―in addition to what I've already given above―you would accept. In other words, it seems that your position is: heads you win, tails I lose. That's confirmation bias on steroids!

    The only thing that I can think to add is that the claim that he intended to mislead people into thinking that Iraq had already acquired nuclear weapons is implausible. If the goal was supposed to be to convince people that a war with Iraq was a good idea, such a claim could easily backfire. If Iraq actually possessed an atomic bomb, it could've inflicted massive casualties upon allied soldiers, an American city, or perhaps an Israeli city. Such a prospect, if taken seriously, would've been enough to turn many people against the invasion. That said, since your claim seems to be unfalsifiable, it's a sucker bet to try to falsify it.

    My primary purpose here was not to defend Cheney, but to point out that this was a quote taken misleadingly out of context. I can't read Cheney's mind now, let alone several years ago, so the only thing I know about his intentions is what he says and what seems plausible. However, whatever Cheney's intentions, the way in which the quote was used was still a contextomy, since it was frequently quoted without any of the context of the interview or of Cheney's later clarifications. Secondarily, I wanted to point out that adopting a position that is unfalsifiable, while perhaps not a fallacy, is at least a questionable procedure in argument. You can't reasonably expect people to argue with you if you reject any evidence against your position as a lie.

  11. Bill Gates, "Bill Gates: Innovating to zero!", TED, 2/2010.
  12. Bill Gates, "Annual Letter 2009", Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 1/2009.
  13. Debra J. Saunders, "Faux Candor", The Weekly Standard, 5/29/2000.
  14. Al Gore, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, 2nd edition (1992), p. 119.
  15. Mark O'Connell, "'Hang in There!'―Arthur Schopenhauer: Quotation websites and the outsourcing of erudition", Slate, 5/19/2014.
  16. Paul F. Boller, Jr. & John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, & Misleading Attributions, pp. 44-45.
  17. Jerome Beatty, Jr., "Trade Winds", Saturday Review, 5/17/1969, p. 10.
  18. John D. Lofton, Jr., "About That Hitler Quote", National Review, 4/21/1970, reprinted in Congressional Record, 5/7/1970, p. 14757.
  19. Ralph Keyes, "Nice Guys Finish Seventh": False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (1992), pp. 190-191.
  20. Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Natural Law", The Harvard Law Review (1918).
  21. Thomas Jefferson, From Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 21 March 1801, National Archives, accessed: 3/21/2021.
  22. For Jefferson's religion, see: St. Elmo Nauman, Jr. Dictionary of American Philosophy (1973), under "Jefferson".
  23. For Priestley, see: Nauman, op. cit..
  24. Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Benjamin Rush, Letters, 4/21/1803.
  25. Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, Letters, 4/11/1823.
  26. George Kennan, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948 (1976), Volume 1, Part 2, pp. 523-525.
  27. Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar, JFK: The Director's Cut (1991). The contextomy occurs during the title sequence.
  28. John F. Kennedy, "Transcript of Broadcast With Walter Cronkite Inaugurating a CBS Television News Program", The American Presidency Project, 9/2/1963.
  29. Robert E. Lee, Memoirs of Robert E. Lee (1886), pp. 83-84.
  30. Brooke Allen, "Our Godless Constitution", The Nation, 2/3/2005.
  31. James Madison, "Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments", 6/20/1785.
  32. The words in brackets are sometimes left out. Sometimes ellipses are inserted between "religion" and the rest of the quote to indicate that something has been omitted; also, sometimes the word "is" is in brackets, indicating that it has been editorially inserted, though the word occurs more than once in the source of the quote―see the Context.
  33. George Mason, et al., "The Virginia Declaration of Rights", 5/15/1776. See, also: Elizabeth Knowles, editor, What They Didn't Say: A Book of Misquotations (2006), pp. 94-95.
  34. "America Under Attack: Bush Holds Press Briefing", CNN, 9/11/2001.
  35. S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies (Sixth Edition, 2000), pp. 114-118.
  36. "Quick Guide & Transcript: New Pentagon 9/11 video released, BBC interviews wrong 'Guy'", CNN, 5/16/2006.
  37. "Air Traffic Controllers Recall 9/11", ABC News, 10/24/2001.
  38. Danielle (O'Brien) Howell, "Response to 9/11, the Big Lie", 911 Myths, accessed: 3/22/2021.
  39. This and subsequent quotes from the movie were verified in: Michael Moore, The Official Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader (2004), pp. 129-130.
  40. Dave Kopel, "Fifty-nine Deceits in Fahrenheit 9/11", 2004.
  41. Margaret Sanger, "Letter from Margaret Sanger to Dr. C.J. Gamble, December 10, 1939", Smith College Libraries.
  42. "Guest: Margaret Sanger", The Mike Wallace Interview, 9/21/1957.
  43. Sam Levine, "Trump Called White Supremacists 'Very Fine People' But An Athlete Who Protests Is A 'Son Of A Bitch'", HuffPost, 9/25/2017.
  44. "Full Transcript and Video: Trump's News Conference in New York", The New York Times, 8/15/2017. I have edited this excerpt down as much as possible without losing any important context. Most of what I removed is either repetition or irrelevant to the issue of whom Trump called "very fine people". I couldn't get the embedded video to work, but you can see the relevant part of the press conference here: "Trump's Full, Heated Press Conference on Race and Violence in Charlottesville (Full)", NBC News, 8/15/2017.
  45. Rosie Gray, "Trump Defends White-Nationalist Protesters: 'Some Very Fine People on Both Sides'", The Atlantic, 8/15/2017.
  46. Denis Slattery & Christopher Brennan, "President Trump calls white supremacists Ďvery fine people,í blames Charlottesville on Ďboth sidesí in bizarre Trump Tower tirade", New York Daily News, 8/16/2017. Again, this is not the fault of the editor who wrote this headline as the entire article misrepresents what Trump said.
  47. Matt Arco, "Murphy unleashes on Trump, says his policies Ďscrewí New Jersey", NJ, 4/17/2019.
  48. The following article tipped me off to this contextomy: Steve Cortes, "Trump Didn't Call Neo-Nazis 'Fine People.' Here's Proof.", Real Clear Politics, 3/21/2019. I wouldn't call this contextomy a "hoax", as Cortes does, since that suggests that someone is intentionally committing it.
  49. Alexander Burns, "Joe Biden's Campaign Announcement Video, Annotated", The New York Times, 4/25/2019. Burns' annotations fail to point out the contextomy, which is another sign that it's "too good to check".
  50. See, for instance: Farah Stockman, "Who Were the Counterprotesters in Charlottesville?", The New York Times, 8/14/2017.
  51. Rachel Stoltzfoos, "FBI Investigating Antifa For Plotting To Buy Guns From Cartel For 'Armed Rebellion'", The Daily Caller, 4/29/2019.
  52. Porter Anderson, "Witnesses to the Moment: Workers' Voices", CNN, 9/11/2001.
  53. Patrick Smith, "Ask the Pilot", Salon, 5/19/2006.
  54. Paul F. Boller, Jr. & John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, & Misleading Attributions, p. 131.