Like Blackbirds on a Telephone Line: As One Flies Away They All Fly Away, When One Comes Back, They All Come Back

Eugene J. McCarthy? Shana Alexander? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Leading journalists often display a surprising uniformity of judgement. An exasperated politician referred to reporters as birds who flocked together when deciding whether to alight on a telephone wire. Would you please explore this figurative expression?

Quote Investigator: In February 1963 U.S. Senator Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota spoke before a convention of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, and a local newspaper quoted from McCarthy’s prepared remarks. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

There is the “ever-present disposition to oversimplification and to editorialize in the news reports.”

Columnists particularly “run to certain fads. They are like blackbirds on a telephone pole: As one flies away they all fly away, when one comes back, they all come back.”

McCarthy also included a version of this observation in his 1969 book “The Year of the People”. Details are given further below within the following collection of selected citations in chronological order.

In 1949 a columnist in “The Algona Upper Des Moines” of Iowa applied comparable language to a group of businessmen although there was no mention of synchronized flying: 2

Russ Waller, writing in the Algona Upper Des Moines, a right snappy paper, by the way, tells of making calls on four prominent business men and finding them all out and then dropping in at a coffee shop and finding them all present, “like blackbirds on a telephone wire,” says Russ.

In 1957 a columnist in an Ohio newspaper employed a comparable simile when discussing clothing: 3

The Embassy has expressed the hope that all women won’t wear their “simple little good black dress.” They figure the occasion won’t look gala if everyone turns up in mourning, like a row of blackbirds on a telephone wire.

In February 1963 an Associated Press article about McCarthy’s speech appeared in many newspapers. This instance of the quotation was slightly extended when compared to the version in “The Minneapolis Star” which ran the previous day: 4

A Minnesota senator said tonight Washington columnists run to fads, “like blackbirds on a telephone pole.”

“As one flies away they all fly away, when one comes back, they all come back and line up again,” said Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn., in remarks prepared for delivery at a convention of weekly newspaper publishers, the Minnesota Newspaper Assoc.

In 1964 a Washington D.C. periodical called “The Idler Magazine” printed an instance which placed the word “newsmen” within the quotation; hence, the statement became self-contained. Also, “telephone line” occurred instead of “telephone pole”: 5

“Newsmen are like blackbirds on a telephone line. When one flies away, they all fly away and when one comes back they all come back.”
—Senator Eugene McCarthy

In 1968 journalist Shana Alexander writing in “LIFE” magazine described the broad sweep of figurative language employed by McCarthy: 6

A man of subtle and elastic mind, McCarthy uses many kinds of metaphor. Animals, trees, rocks, baseball, and the lives of the saints serve him well. But his fun in talking politics comes from talking it in animal terms, and on that brief Nebraska afternoon, cows, pigs, blackbirds, a skunk, and a rooster all turned up in Senator McCarthy’s cornfield parade.

Alexander also presented an instance of the saying; however, she did not place the words between quotation marks:

The reporters who follow McCarthy’s campaign trail are blackbirds sitting on a telephone wire: when one flies away they all fly away, when one sits down again they all come back.

In 1969 McCarthy published “The Year of the People” which included an instance. McCarthy used the pronoun “they” which reduced the concision and elegance of the comment: 7

For some reason at this time, the press began to worry about the effectiveness of my organization. Once one reporter began to worry, it seemed the whole press corps did. They reminded me of blackbirds on a telephone line. When one flies off, they all fly off; when one returns, they all return. The word went around that I was going to replace Blair Clark as campaign manager. I never could find out who started it, but there was no truth in it. Blair Clark had been most loyal and self-sacrificing in the whole effort.

In August 1969 “The Austin American” reviewed McCarthy’s book and reprinted the passage containing the quotation which enhanced its dissemination. 8

In conclusion Eugene J. McCarthy should receive credit for this saying. QI recommends using the version in the 1963 speech or the 1969 book. The word “they” could be replaced by “columnists” in brackets for the 1963 quotation. Also, “they” could be replaced by “the press corps” in brackets in 1969. The brackets would signal that a substitution has been performed.

Image Notes: Picture of birds on a wire from JanBaby at Pixabay. Image has been cropped, rotated, and resized.

(Great thanks to Professor W. Joseph Campbell of American University in Washington D.C. whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Campbell provided citations beginning in 1976 that pointed to McCarthy.)

Notes:

  1. 1963 February 22, The Minneapolis Star, Senator Sees Danger in Control of News, Quote Page 3A, Column 2, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1949 April 14, The Algona Upper Des Moines, About Coffee, Section: 3, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Algona, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1957 October 14, The Akron Beacon Journal, Akronites Will Shower Royalty with Ticker Tape Not Too Low, Girls! by Betty Jaycox (Beacon Journal Women’s Editor), Quote Page 14, Column 1, Akron, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1963 February 23, The Hartford Courant, Says Columnists ‘Like Blackbirds’ (Associated Press), Quote Page 11, Column 2,Hartford, Connecticut. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1964 October, The Idler Magazine, Number 2, Editor: Sam Smith, (Filler item), Quote Page 24, Printed by Warren Printing Company, Rhode, Island, Publishes by The Idler, Washington D.C. (Unz Archive)
  6. 1968 May 31, LIFE, Volume 64, Number 22, The Feminine Eye: An animal stroll with Senator McCarthy by Shana Alexander, Start Page 21, Quote Page 21, Column 1, Time Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View)
  7. 1969, The Year of the People by Eugene J. McCarthy Chapter 6: The President Drops Out, Quote Page 101, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1969 October 22, The Austin American, A Politician Reviews the Press by Sen. McCarthy, (The eleventh in a series of 12 articles excerpted from “The Year of the People” by Eugene J. McCarthy to be published by Doubleday & Company), Quote Page 14, Column 1, Austin, Texas. (Newspapers_com)