Adlai Stevenson? William Randolph Hearst? Chauncey Depew? Asa W. Tenney? Harold Wilson? Michael Douglas? Gordon Gekko? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Several politicians have attacked the prevarications of opponents by employing a quip from a family of humorous sayings. Here are two examples:
- If they will not lie about our past, we will not tell the truth about their past.
- If they are willing to stop telling lies about us then we will stop telling the truth about them.
A statement of this type has been credited to U.S. Senator and raconteur Chauncey Depew; newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst; and U.S. Governor and diplomat Adlai Stevenson II. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: Chauncey Depew did deliver a quip within this family in 1892. William Randolph Hearst employed an instance in 1906, and Adlai Stevenson used an instance during a speech in 1952. Tracing this family is difficult because of its mutability. Yet, the evidence clearly shows that the saying was in circulation before it was used by the individuals above.
A precursor appeared in a Kansas newspaper in 1884, and QI hypothesizes that the template of this remark facilitated the emergence of the family under analysis. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
The Democratic press cries out, “If you do not stop telling the truth on CLEVELAND, we will manufacture some lies about BLAINE.”
In July 1888 another precursor appeared in an Indiana newspaper: 2
If Democratic papers continue their lying about General Harrison they may finally goad Republicans into telling the truth about Cleveland.
In September 1888 Judge Asa W. Tenney of Brooklyn delivered a speech that was reported in the “Buffalo Evening News” of Buffalo, New York. The following excerpt included the first instance within the family of sayings under examination. The passage contained the misspelling “Tenny” for “Tenney”: 3
Judge Tenny rang the changes of ridicule upon the President’s message and said: “It’s too late, Father Cleveland, to talk about reform when 137 convicts have been appointed by you to offices of high trust; It’s too late; you ought to have thought about reform when you lived in Buffalo.
“But I’ll not pursue this subject. The Republicans and Democrats have made a solemn contract that if the Democrats will stop lying about Harrison the Republicans will stop telling the truth about Cleveland.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In October 1892 “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York reported on a speech delivered by Chauncey M. Depew containing a version of the quip: 4
We love the past and glory in it. [Applause.] We have an understanding with them that if they will not lie about the Republican past, we will not tell the truth about their past. [Applause.] But it is impossible in the continuity of principles and of government not to refer to the past, at least to profit by its experiences.
Also in October “The Sun” newspaper of New York reported on a speech by Depew that reordered the phrases: 5
The Republican party has a glorious past. No other party ever had such a grand one. The Democrats do not like that past. We love it, but we have a tacit understanding with our opponents this year that we will not tell the truth about their past if they do not lie about ours.
Later in October 1892 a newspaper in Little Falls, Minnesota printed an unattributed filler item: 6
You may have noticed that there isn’t much being said in this campaign of the past. There seems to have been a sort of understanding that if the Democrats wouldn’t lie about the Republican, the Republicans wouldn’t tell the truth about the Democratic past.
In 1906 “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” reported on a speech delivered by William Randolph Hearst during his unsuccessful campaign to become governor of New York: 7
“Now, my friends, I do not believe in personalities, and if Mr. Hughes will stop telling lies about me I will stop telling the truth about him.
“But I am like the man In the Western poker game, who said: ‘I don’t want to mention any names, but there is a one-eyed man in this game who is dealing from the bottom of the pack, and if he does it again I will shoot his other eye out.’
In 1934 a newspaper in York, Pennsylvania printed an anecdote in which Chauncey Depew conferred with a rival who asked whether mud-slinging could be avoided during an upcoming campaign: 8
Mr. Depew replied, “That’s a good idea. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. If you will refrain from telling any lies about the Republican party, I will promise not to tell the truth about the Democratic party. Will you agree?—Sunshine Magazine.
In 1952 “The Fresno Bee” of Fresno, California reported on a speech delivered by Adlai Stevenson containing a version of the saying: 9
“I have been thinking, good people, I would make a proposition to the Republicans.
“If they will stop telling lies about the Democrats we’ll stop telling the truth about them.”
In 1969 “The Guardian” of London reported on a speech delivered by Prime Minister Harold Wilson to the Labour Party Conference: 10
Mr. Wilson commented, and carried the conference with him: “I will make them (the Tories) this offer, and they can consider it next week.” (The Tory conference will be in the same hall at Brighton). “If they stop telling lies about us, we will stop telling the truth about them.” This was Wilson at the best of the form he reached when he was Leader of the Opposition.
The 2010 movie “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” includes a scene in which the character Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas uses the saying: 11
I’ll make you a deal Bretton: You stop telling lies about me; I’ll stop telling the truth about you.
In conclusion, QI believes the saying evolved from non-comical expressions that contrasted telling the truth versus concocting lies. Currently, Judge Asa W. Tenney employed the quip in the earliest citation of September 1888 found by QI Chauncey Depew, William Randolph Hearst, and Adlai Stevenson each employed instances in later years. Future researchers many find earlier evidence.
Image Notes: Caricature of Chauncey Depew by Bob Satterfield from “The Tacoma Times” of February 11, 1904. Democratic Party poster for Adlai Stevenson in 1952. Portrait of William Randolph Hearst from the U.S. Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Images have been retouched, cropped, and resized.
(Great thanks to Carl Hegelman whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to previous researchers Suzy Platt, Ralph Keyes, Nigel Rees, Fred Shapiro, and Barry Popik. This article contains several new earlier citations including the first direct nineteenth century evidence showing Chauncey Depew used the saying.)
- 1884 August 7, The Atchison Daily Champion, (Untitled filter item), Quote Page 2, Column 3, Atchison, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1888 July 14, The Indianapolis Journal, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1888 September 27, Buffalo Evening News, Judge Tenney’s Address, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Buffalo, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1892 October 9, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Depew’s High Moral Ideas, Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1892 October 9, The Sun, Depew Does Great Things, Quote Page 7, Column 3, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1892 October 21, The Little Falls Transcript, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Little Falls, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1906 October 25, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Hearst Was Pleased with Second Tour Here: Mr. Hearst’s Speech, Quote Page 13, Column 3, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1934 October 11, The Gazette and Daily, A Promise, Quote Page 12, Column 2, York, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1952 September 10, The Fresno Bee, Fresno Hears Stevenson Rap GOP, Pledge CVP Aid, Quote Page 1, Column 8, Fresno, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1969 October 1, The Guardian, Mr. Wilson on top form by Francis Boyd, Start Page 1, Quote Page 24, Column 2, London, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- YouTube video, Title: “You stop telling lies about me, I’ll stop telling the truth about you”, Uploaded on May 8, 2015, Uploaded by: breebel, Speaker: Character Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas, Movie: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), (Quotation starts at 0 minute 0 seconds of 0 minutes 10 seconds) (Accessed on youtube.com on June 10, 2018) link ↩