Politicians Are Like Diapers. They Should Be Changed Regularly

Mark Twain? Dick Nolan? Ad Schuster? 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,[ref] Website: TwainQuotes.com, Editor: Barbara Schmidt, Description: Mark Twain quotations, articles, and related resources. (Searched October 17, 2018) link [/ref] nor does it appear in “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger.[ref] 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified with search)[/ref]

The earliest close match located by QI appeared in a column by Dick Nolan in “The San Francisco Examiner” of California in 1966. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1966 November 10, The San Francisco Examiner, See—I’ve Still Got a Neck by Dick Nolan, Quote Page 41, Column 4, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Seasoned politics-watchers can only remind the gloomies that a more or less regular turnover is good for the Republic. In a sound democracy, our rulers ought to be changed routinely, like diapers for the same reason.

QI hypothesizes that this expression evolved from an earlier family of sayings based on the replacement of socks instead of diapers.

Multiple researchers have cooperatively explored this topic, e.g., Barry Popik has found several valuable citations, and this article includes citations located by other researchers.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1934 a newspaper in Oklahoma used socks and motor oil within a simile about the need to regularly change customs; thus, the topic was not politics:[ref] 1934 January 19, The Daily Oklahoman, Downtown ‘Jaywalking’ May Be Legal, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Customs must be changed, like socks and motor oil . . .

The 1943 movie “A Lady Takes a Chance” included a simile about women and socks. The screenplay was by Robert Ardrey based on a story from Jo Swerling:[ref] YouTube video, Title: A Lady Takes a Chance 1943 HD Starring Jean Arthur, John Wayne (Comedy Romance Western), Uploaded on Oct 8, 2018, Uploaded by: VIEW LOO, Time: Quotation starts at 1 hour 8 minutes of 1 hour 25 minutes, Details: Quotation is spoken by character Waco (Charles Winninger) who is conversing with Duke Hudkins (John Wayne). (Accessed on youtube.com on May 14, 2019) [/ref]

Waco (Played by Charles Winninger): Remember what you told me ‘Women is like socks. You’ve gotta change ’em regular.’

In 1943 “Thesaurus of Epigrams” compiled by Edmund Fuller used socks in a simile about women:[ref] 1943 Copyright, Thesaurus of Epigrams, Compiled by Edmund Fuller, Topic: Women, Quote Page 312, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans; HathiTrust)[/ref]

Women are like socks, you have to change them regularly.

In 1946 a newspaper in Oakland, California employed the socks simile within a comical poem in the political domain. The author Ad Schuster stated that policies should not be changed like socks:[ref] 1946 September 20, Oakland Tribune, Section: Editorial Page, Other Fellow by Ad Schuster, Poem: The Wallace and the Carpenter, Quote Page 28, Column 3, Oakland, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

The Carpenter then made remark.
“These policies of State,
It seems to me should bear the stamp
Of someone high and great;
Should not be dropped like poppy seeds
Or changed like socks or coats.”

In 1950 a newspaper in Valparaiso, Indiana reported on a student election in a local high school. Diapers were represented symbolically via pins:[ref] 1950 November 14, The Vidette-Messenger, Students Elect George Rhed Pres. Student Council, Quote Page 8, Column 7, Valparaiso, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Eileen’s campaign manager had small paper-shaped diapers with the words “Time for change” which the voters could pin on their lapels.

In 1952 a statement in a letter published in the “Boston Traveler” of Massachusetts matched the joke under examination; however, the simile used “office holders” and “socks” instead of “politicians” and “diapers”. The phrase “same reason” was included, and it functioned as the final sting of the punchline:[ref] 1952 September 10, Boston Traveler, (Letter to the editor from John Q. of Roslindale), Letter title: No Re-Elections, Quote Page 26, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

If a politician needs to hold office but six years to get a pension let’s all go to the polls and see that he doesn’t hold office that long. Office holders, like socks, should be changed often and for very much the same reason.

In 1958 an Indianapolis, Indiana paper printed a similar instance of the joke:[ref] 1958 November 2, The Indianapolis Star, The Things I Hear! by Lowell Nussbaum, Section 2, Quote Page 11, Column 2, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

FROM THE Reflector, the Indiana
Reformatory inmate paper:
“We have always been of the opinion that politicians like socks, should be changed frequently—and for the same reason.

In 1966 a newspaper in San Francisco, California printed the full quip with diapers as mentioned at the beginning of this article:[ref] 1966 November 10, The San Francisco Examiner, See—I’ve Still Got a Neck by Dick Nolan, Quote Page 41, Column 4, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

In a sound democracy, our rulers ought to be changed routinely, like diapers for the same reason.

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:[ref] 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)[/ref]

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.

In December 1991 “The Wall Street Journal” reported that the saying was being propagated via bumper stickers:[ref] 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)[/ref]

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

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:[ref] 1992 March 23, San Francisco Chronicle, Column: Congress Insider, Quote Page A4, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

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”:[ref] 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”)[/ref]

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”:[ref] 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)[/ref]

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:[ref] 2006 October 15, The Signal, FilmCue: Films at a Glance, Quote Page 19, Column 3, Santa Clarita, California. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

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, QI believes that this jest evolved over time from a humorous simile about changing socks. A partial symbolic match for the diaper joke occurred in 1950, and a full match appeared in 1966 within a column written by Dick Nolan. Future research may locate earlier instances which shift the credit; however, the ascription to Mark Twain is currently unsupported.

(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 valuable citations. Further thanks to discussants Peter Reitan, Bill Mullins, and Laurence Horn.)

Update History: On May 8, 2019 citations were added with the following dates: January 19, 1934; 1943; September 20, 1946; November 14, 1950; September 10, 1952; November 2, 1958; and November 10, 1966. Some citations in the 1990s were removed. Parts of the article and the conclusion were rewritten. On May 14, 2019 the 1943 citation for the movie “A Lady Takes a Chance” was added.

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