By Brian Arbenz
Mightier than the pen, it would seem, are words never actually spoken, but which moved mountains by helping shape our understanding of big institutions, celebrated people or powerful moments.
“What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”
When GM president Charles E. Wilson was nominated by President Eisenhower in 1953 to be Secretary of Defense, critics asked how a conflict of interest could possibly be avoided, as Wilson had made much of his fortune from General Motors military contracts during World War II. In a closed Senate hearing about his personal finances, Wilson is said to have testified, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” – presenting the very picture of cigar-chomping arrogance that is still used to characterize the hubris of big corporations.
The quote was first used by The Detroit Free Press in an interview with one of those senators passing on Wilson’s words from the hearing, and it still annoys the biggest of the big 3; GM’s initial web site in the ‘90s included a page devoted solely to refuting the widespread belief that its CEO ever said such a megalomaniacal thing.
Well, the Free Press itself acknowledged in 2008 that transcripts show Wilson actually said “…for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa. The difference did not exist” – an attitude of interdependence with, not domination of the nation.
Shed no tears, however, for a GM misjudged as putting itself first. This little known, yet truly revealing quote from the 1920s by its president Alfred P. Sloan, reported in the film “Taken For a Ride,” illustrates the documented strategy of GM joining with many other corporations to illegally sabotage mass transit: “If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars. And if we don’t, then General Motors’ sales are just going to remain level.”
Not exactly good for the country, or a world being torn by war after war because of U.S. overdependence on oil and petrodollars.
“I invented the Internet.”
Critics of Al Gore, including GOP partisans and cynical centrists, pounce on the preposterous statement in 1999 that a vice-president or senator could find time in his schedule to invent anything, particularly the biggest technology of our era.
Even some defenders of Gore change the subject quickly, rather than attack the real falsehood – the misconception that Gore lied or even overstated his relationship to the medium through which you are reading this.
Few can cite the time or place the vice-president and hard charging 2000 presidential candidate actually is supposed to have said the words they use to characterize Gore as dishonest, or at least a braggart by nature.
Here’s is where it all began: Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s “Late Edition” program on March 9, 1999 asked Gore why he stood out from challenger Bill Bradley, the New Jersey senator also seeking the 2000 Democratic nomination. Gore said, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.”
Sloppy sentence construction, to be sure — and communicating a vision clearly being a key task of a president, Gore’s overall presentation problems could make an issue – but Al Gore’s appraisal of his connection to the internet is correct.
Two of the real inventors of the internet, Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf (the latter often referred to as the “father of the Internet”) wrote in 2000 that “Al Gore was the first political leader to recognize the importance of the Internet and to promote and support its development” and that, “No other elected official, to our knowledge, has made a greater contribution [to the Internet] over a longer period of time.”
Snopes.com calls the claim that Gore ever said he “invented” the net, “just silly political posturing.”
“Houston, we have a problem.”
The 1995 movie by Ron Howard about the real-life drama of Apollo 13’s nearly fatal mishap pegged the climax on Tom Hanks as mission commander Jim Lovell announcing the explosion of an oxygen tank with the understatement of all history.
“A problem?” Well, three men 200,000 miles from Earth with quite possibly not a way to get home and not enough power or air to stay alive — yeah, that would unsettle your contentment a bit.
Howard’s “Apollo 13” intelligently mixed melodrama with fact to make the finest space movie ever, but in choosing a signature line, he did muddle what was said, who said it and in what mood.
Actual recordings from Apollo 13 on April 13, 1970 show that a minute or so after the explosion, one of the astronauts says in a matter-of-fact tone, “OK Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” ABC News says it was Fred Haise. A site called phrases.org.uk attributes it to Jack Swigert. It clearly isn’t the highly recognized dulcet voice of Lovell, who then repeats it upon Houston’s request, saying: ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem. We’ve had a main B bus undervolt.”
Though “bus undervolt” isn’t a common term in our culture, call anything Houston, and you’ll invite a reuse of what Jim Lovell almost said.
Difficulties in the life of Whitney Houston and poor play by Houston sports teams have provoked re-call to duty of the former astronaut and Navy pilot, and a Los Angeles Times review of a Houston’s restaurant said: “Houston(‘s), we have a problem.”
Yet if they’d called the place “Bus Undervolt’s,” his actual words, who’d have thought of Jim Lovell?
“Beam me up, Scotty.”
Unlike Ron Howard, Gene Roddenberry didn’t have to face the matter of historical accuracy, so how could myth play a role in the many iconic lines for which Star Trek characters are revered?
Yes, Dr. McCoy really does say, “He’s dead, Jim” several times. And Spock’s constant calls for the use of logic justly prosper as they live long in the Trekker acumen.
Exactly whether engineer Scott really harps on his professional inadequacies I will leave for some other time, but no, the man at the helm of the enterprise does not once say, “Beam me up, Scotty,” a phrase sometimes used on bumper stickers and memes to poke fun at places considered undesirable by showing Captain Kirk ordering a quick return to the Enterprise.
“The closest that Captain Kirk ever got to this was “Beam us up, Mr. Scott”, in the ‘Gamesters of Triskelion’ episode,” reports phrases.org.uk.
If you already knew that, to the point of being able to cite that episode immediately, then you need to, as William Shatter told a group of archetypal Star Trek devotes in a Saturday Night Live skit, “Get a life!”
“Just the facts, ma’am.”
Jack Webb’s “Dragnet” has changed form many times since its debut as a radio show in 1949 billed as a more up-close and personal look at police.
In the 1960s, the second Dragnet TV series was known as frenetic, preachy and filled with indelible verbal and music trademarks often parodied, but none of them, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
The book, “My Name’s Friday” by Michael J. Hayde traces the association of those words with detective Joe Friday to Stan Freberg’s 1953 comedy record “St. George and the Dragonet,” for which Webb gave permission to use the Dragnet theme music.
A skit, as accessible online, includes a Joe Friday-like “Detective Wednesday” asking questions of citizens in the case of “Little Blue Riding Hood.” He twice says, “Ma’am, we just want to get the facts.”
And ever since, the man who told us weekly, “I carry a badge” also carries an undue image of cutting off female witnesses.
Brian Arbenz is a writer and researcher in Louisville, Ky. Enjoy without guilt this thoroughly researched piece, for he considers delving into the arcane pure leisure.