Want a Friend in Washington, Get a Dog

Harry Truman? Samuel Gallu? Gordon Gekko?

Dear Quote Investigator: I love dogs and live near Washington D.C. One of my favorite quotes is attributed to former President Harry Truman who experienced some bruising political battles and said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Could you please investigate this quote?

Quote Investigator: That is an enjoyable quote that appeals to the multitude of dog fanciers. But, it is very unlikely that it was said by Harry Truman. Further below the origin of the saying is discussed, but first a comment about the fate of a dog named Feller is instructive. The dog was given to Truman while he was in the White House and a contemporary newspaper account in 1948 describes what happened [TRD1]:

Somebody asked President Truman the other day what had become of Feller, the cocker spaniel pup presented to him last winter. “Oh, he’s around,” answered the President, admitting under pressure that the pooch was still non-resident at the White House and in charge of the presidential physician, Dr. Graham, over at his place. This is bound to cost Harry more votes.

… But Harry seems about as close to this pup as he does to Hank Wallace. … And now, months later, the animal is still an outsider. Mr. Truman’s campaign backers had better look into this.

In 1949 a newspaper columnist named E. V. Durling answered a readers question about Truman and dogs [TRD2]:

Why doesn’t Truman have a dog? … It is my understanding Truman does not have a dog because Mrs. Truman thinks dogs are too much trouble to care for.

There is no evidence that Truman employed a dog as a surrogate friend while he was in the White House. Expert Ralph Keyes discusses the origin of the attribution in his book The Quote Verifier [QVTR] and traces it to a 1975 play. The biographical drama “Give ’em Hell Harry” by Samuel Gallu contains the first known connection between Truman and the saying. The character depicting Harry Truman in the theatrical production says [GLL]:

Banks, boy, there’s a bunch of crooks for you. They’re happy to lend you money when you prove you don’t need it. You want a friend in life, get a dog!

A reviewer of the play in the Los Angeles Times in 1975 repeats a slightly altered version of the quotation. He uses the quote to comment on the personality of Truman. Thus, he implicitly assumes that the attachment to Truman in the fictionalized drama is accurate [LATT]:

H.S.T. didn’t try to be loved (“If you want a friend in this life, get a dog”.) and there’s no reason an evening about him should try to.

In 1978 the quotation is directly attributed to Truman in a book about the nursing profession. The quote is once again slightly altered: “in this world” is used instead of “in this life” or “in life” [PLCK]:

The only alternative may be to heed former President Harry S. Truman’s advice, “If you want a friend in this world, get a dog.”

In 1987 Nancy Kassebaum, Senator from Kansas at the time, uses a variant of the phrase particularized to Washington in a letter to the New York Times [KAS]:

I’ll close with some words from Harry Truman: “If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.”

Strong personalities, fictional and non-fictional, have been associated with the quote as this passage from Time magazine in 2008 shows [TMCI]:

If you want a friend, buy a dog. Those words are most often attributed to the corporate raider Carl Icahn in the mid-1980s and were later immortalized by the character Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street.

More precisely, here is what Gordon Gekko, the character created by screenwriters Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone, says in the 1987 movie Wall Street [WSG]:

You win a few; you lose a few; but you keep on fighting. And if you need a friend, get a dog. It’s trench warfare out there, pal.

Expert Barry Popik has a webpage about the quotation that contains many interesting finds. He discovered a fine citation in 1911, and he also found a 1941 cite in Hollywood, a town that is sometimes even tougher than Washington [HLL]:

And then there was Frank Fay’s advice to Rene Clair, the newly arrived French director. Said Fay, “If you’re going to stay in this town and want a friend, go out and buy yourself a dog.”

QI closes this post with a cite from 1841. The attribution may be questionable, but many embrace the sentiment [SNC]:

As Lord Byron said, ‘nobody need want a friend who can get a dog.’

[TRD1] 1948 May 06, Mexia Weekly Herald, The Once Over by H. I. Phillips: Truman and His Dog, Page 4, Column 6, Mexia, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)

[TRD2] 1949 November 14, On the Side by E. V. Durling, Page 10-B, Column 6, San Antonio, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)

[QVTR] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 47, St Martin’s Griffin, New York.

[GLL] 1975, Give ’em Hell Harry by Samuel Gallu, Page 8, Viking Press, New York. (Google Books snippet view) (Verified on paper) link

[LATT] 1975 May 21, Los Angeles Times, Stage Review: James Whitmore Plays Truman by Dan Sullivan, Page F1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)

[PLCK] 1978, Human Communication: the Matrix of Nursing by Margaret L Pluckhan, Page 123, McGraw-Hill, New York (Google Books snippet view) (Verified on paper) link

[KAS] 1987 June 7, New York Times, Prospects: Advice to Greenspan from Nancy Kassebaum, New York. (Online archive New York Times) link

[TMCI] 2008 April 17, Time magazine, Surviving Market Mayhem by Dan Kadlec, Time, Inc., New York. (Online at time.com) link

[WSG] 1987, Movie: Wall Street, Screenwriters: Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone, Character: Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas. (Verified by viewing movie)

[HLL] 1941 January 22, Dunkirk (NY) Evening Observer, “Harrison in Hollywood” by Paul Harrison, Page 6, Column 5, Dunkirk, New York. (Cite given on Big Apple website) (NewspaperArchive)

[SNC] 1841, Modern Flirtations: or, A Month at Harrowgate by Catherine Sinclair, Volume 2, Page 195, William Whyte and Co., Edinburgh. (Google Books full view) link

6 replies on “Want a Friend in Washington, Get a Dog”

  1. Pingback: Our Post-Post-Racial Summer, Ctd. - Opinionator Blog - NYTimes.com
  2. I have a 8×10 photograph of President Truman sitting in a over stuffed chair reading a book with a large Boxer lying by his side. Could you tell me if he ever had such a dog? Thanks

  3. Hmm, interesting. I actually read the Truman biography by David McCullough, but it either did cover, or I just didn’t notice, Truman’s conflicted relationship with dogs. 🙂

  4. I remeber when Tom Ridge said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog. ” Comedians gave it a lot of attention. At the time, it sounded like he was the first to say it.

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