Politicians Are Like Diapers. They Should Be Changed Regularly

Mark Twain? Betty Carpenter? Bumper Sticker? Jake Ford? Bill Quraishi? John Wallner? Robin Williams? Barry Levinson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The number of sayings spuriously ascribed to Mark Twain seems to grow every year. Here are two versions of a remark credited to the famous son of Hannibal, Missouri:

  • Politicians and diapers should be changed often.
  • Politicians are like diapers. They need to be changed regularly and for the same reason.

The Wikiquote webpage for Twain contends that the statement is misattributed. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain who died in 1910 said or wrote this joke. It does not appear on the important Twain Quotes website edited by Barbara Schmidt, 1 nor does it appear in “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 2

Several researchers have explored this topic, and the earliest pertinent citations previously known occurred in 1992. QI has made incremental progress by uncovering a match in October 1987. “The Cincinnati Enquirer” of Ohio printed a collection of short pieces about electoral candidates such as Betty Carpenter who was running for a position on the Fort Thomas Council. Carpenter made the following comment containing the core of the joke. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 3

This has been a quiet campaign as far as issues go, but I think politicians, like diapers, should be changed regularly. New faces bring fresh new ideas and perspectives to the government.

Carpenter may have crafted this saying, but QI hypothesizes that it was already in circulation before 1987. Yet, it is difficult to trace because the phrasing of the quip is highly variable.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In December 1991 “The Wall Street Journal” reported that the saying was being propagated via bumper stickers: 4

A bumper sticker declares: “Politicians and diapers should be changed often.”

A few days later the “Tallahassee Democrat” of Florida further disseminated the joke while acknowledging the financial newspaper: 5

Bumper-sticker report from the Wall Street Journal: “Politicians and diapers should be changed often.” One of those “Eight is Enough” people, probably.

A Roanoke, Virginia newspaper columnist named Ed asked his readers whether they would like him to run for a seat in the U.S. Congress. He printed several replies in his February 1992 column: 6

Politicians and diapers should be changed regularly, but Shamy on you for considering to run. No way, Eddie.

Also, in February 1992 a letter writer named Jake Ford whose missive appeared in a Roswell, New Mexico newspaper said this: 7

Politicians are like diapers: they should be changed frequently.

In March 1992 a column called “Congress Insider” published by the “San Francisco Chronicle” of California discussed the perennial political candidate Bill Quraishi, and credited him with an instance of the joke: 8

He already has come up with one of the more memorable slogans of the campaign: “Politicians, like dirty diapers, should be changed often.”

In May 1992 “The San Diego Union-Tribune” of California reported that a libertarian political candidate employed an extended version of the saying with the phrase “for the same reason”: 9

At a candidates’ forum in the 49th Congressional District, Libertarian John Walner fired a new broadside. “Politicians are like diapers,” Wallner observed. “They both should be changed often. And for the same reason.”

Also in May 1992 the same joke achieved wider distribution via “The Los Angeles Times”: 10

At one recent debate in Ocean Beach, Libertarian John Wallner accurately—and humorously—captured the mood of the campaign by saying: “Politicians are like diapers. They both should be changed often—and for the same reason.”

In 2006 the popular comedian Robin Williams delivered the line in the movie “Man of the Year” written by Barry Levinson: 11

Williams plays a popular talk show host and comedian who runs for president as a lark, but ends up winning. ‘Politicians are a lot like diapers because they need to be changed for the same reason,’ Williams’ Tom Dobbs says.

In conclusion, in 1987 political candidate Betty Carpenter of Ohio employed the compact version of this quip. She may have coined it, but QI suspects that the adage is anonymous, and future researchers will locate earlier instances. By 1991 the statement had migrated to bumper stickers. An extended version was employed by a politician in 1992. The attribution to Mark Twain is unsupported.

Image Notes: Picture of the U.S. Capitol by Martin Falbisoner; licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0); Illustration of a set of colorful diapers from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay. Images have been cropped, resized, and retouched.

(Great thanks to Stephen Bridge, jugghayd, and Michael Castengera whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to Wikiquote and Twain quotation expert Barbara Schmidt for previous efforts. Special thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who examined this saying and found citations dated February 22, 1992; May 1, 1992; May 25, 1992 and numerous additional citations.)

Notes:

  1. Website: TwainQuotes.com, Editor: Barbara Schmidt, Description: Mark Twain quotations, articles, and related resources. (Searched October 17, 2018) link
  2. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified with search)
  3. 1987 October 25, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Section: Special Report: Election Guide 1987, Fort Thomas Council: Betty Carpenter, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1991 December 27, Wall Street Journal, A Special Report From The Wall Street Journal’s Capital Bureau, Compiled by Rich Jaroslovsky, Quote Page A1, New York. (ProQuest)
  5. 1991 December 31, Tallahassee Democrat, By the Way: Both Are Smelly?, Quote Page 8A, Column 2,Tallahassee, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1992 February 22, The Roanoke Times, Section: Extra, Should Ed Run, Quote Page E-1, Roanoke, Virginia. (NewsBank Access World News)
  7. 1992 February 28, Roswell Daily Record (Letter to the editor from Jake Ford), Congressmen get pay hike, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Roswell, New Mexico. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. 1992 March 23, San Francisco Chronicle, Column: Congress Insider, Quote Page A4, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank Access World News)
  9. 1992 May 1, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Section: Local, And it’s always news to me… by Tom Blair, Quote Page B-1, San Diego, California. (NewsBank Access World News)(The original text misspelled “Wallner” as “Walner”)
  10. 1992 May 4, The Los Angeles Times, Section: San Diego County, 10 Republicans Find the Going Is Tough in a Crowded Race by Barry M. Horstman (Times Staff Writer), Quote Page B1, Column 4, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 2006 October 15, The Signal, FilmCue: Films at a Glance, Quote Page 19, Column 3, Santa Clarita, California. (Newspapers_com)