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Great moments in history are often defined by the words used to describe the events. From ancient Roman critics to the modern era of political journalism, words have grown bigger than even the powerful men and women who speak them. There are political quotes for any number of situations, from lighthearted quotes at a fundraiser to powerful statements commemorating the outbreak of war. Whether humorous and witty or solemnly inspiring, political one-liners can take many shapes. Here are some of the best political one-liners in history.
"I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past." – Thomas Jefferson
The earliest of the political one-liners on this list comes from an 1816 letter Thomas Jefferson sent to his friend and fellow founding father John Adams. Ever the academic, Jefferson refers to the dreams of the future, meaning a future free of ignorance and bigotry and instead filled with education and free discussion. The full letter features freedom-fueled fervor, equating ignorance and bigotry with the ideals of "Old Europe." In Jefferson's mind, the newly independent nation was an opportunity to build an ideal society of free-thinking, educated men who could entertain discussions without fear of reprisal.
"Read my lips: no new taxes." – George H. W. Bush
This quote is the most famous soundbite from former president George H. W. Bush's acceptance speech after receiving the republican nomination in the 1988 presidential election. "No new taxes" became a platform and a rally cry for the elder Bush's political campaign, leading him to a landslide victory over his opponent, democrat Michael Dukakis.
This is one of the most important political one-liners in recent memory because these six words essentially cost the older Bush his reelection. After taking such a steadfast, conservative stance, Bush ended up going back on this statement just two years into his presidency with the 1990 Budget Reconciliation Act.
Unsurprisingly, Bush's failure to keep his promise made a perfect focal point for his opposition's attacks in debates and advertisements during the 1992 presidential election. Instead of solidifying his stance as a champion conservative, "read my lips: no new taxes" came back to haunt Bush, and practically handed the election to Bill Clinton.
"A house divided against itself cannot stand." – Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln, considered by many to be the greatest US president in history, was a brilliant orator and delivered many political one-liners. This 1958 quote is the perfect summation of Lincoln's often-misinterpreted vision for the nation. Spoken prior to the Lincoln-Douglas debates (part of Lincoln's unsuccessful Senate campaign prior to his presidential bid), Lincoln evoked the biblical imagery to refer to the United States' divided stance on slavery. Interestingly, the full quote reveals the true nature of his fears: though personally and politically an abolitionist, Lincoln's greatest mission was to maintain the integrity of the United States as a unified country. In other words, Lincoln believed the entire country must either accept or reject slavery unanimously or else crumble. Of course, Lincoln's fears would come true with the 1861 secession of seven southern states, and he would ultimately be assassinated while fighting to reunite the nation.
"Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." – Lloyd Bentson
Another quip from the 1988 presidential election, this one is among my personal favorite political one-liners. Even though you may not recognize Lloyd Bentson, the democratic candidate for vice president in 1988, his words made waves after his debate with the Republican vice presidential candidate (and eventual vice president) Dan Quayle. At 41 years old, Dan Quayle frequently received criticism for his young age and perceived inexperience. Quayle's go-to defense was to recall John F. Kennedy, who was 43 at the time of his own election and had served in congress for a similar amount of time as Quayle.
According to advisors from the campaign, Bentson's attack was premeditated for the vice presidential debate on October 5, 1988. Bentson correctly predicted that Quayle would bring up the JFK comparison once again, and he took his opportunity to strike: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
As effective and memorable as this quote was, however, it was not enough to turn the tides of the election.
"I am not a crook." – Richard M. Nixon
The Watergate scandal of the early 1970s was one of the biggest presidential scandals of all time, resulting in decades of distrust between parties and Nixon's resignation, making him currently the only US president in history to have done so. This quote was spoken after Nixon forced the resignation of several attorney generals until he found one willing to dismiss a special prosecutor, in an event that would become known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Met with great public suspicion (rightfully so), Nixon gave a speech assuring the American public that he was not guilty of any wrongdoing. Barely a year later, however, Nixon resigned in the face of near-certain impeachment after he was forced to release several incriminating recordings from his office.
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." – Franklin D. Roosevelt
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1933, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. This quote, taken from Roosevelt's inaugural address, assures the American public that their material struggles should not cause their spirits to falter, and that they should trust in their leadership to help overcome this dark time. Like many of the greatest political one-liners, this quote has been re-applied to many situations since its inception. FDR understood that in order to rebuild the American economy, he first had to restore the faith the American people had in the government. Roosevelt's efforts were ultimately successful, as his New Deal policies slowly but surely pulled the United States out of the Great Depression, continuing on to multiple landslide victories in subsequent elections and becoming the longest serving president in the nation's history.
"I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." – Bill Clinton
This is another one of my favorite political one-liners that came back to bite the man who said it. One of Bill Clinton's earliest responses to allegations of another infamous presidential sex scandal, it features a direct, matter-of-fact, unequivocal statement of denial that ended up being completely untrue. As further evidence of the scandal unfolded, such as the semen-stained dress and Lewinsky's own testimony, it became clear that Clinton had lied under oath. This led to an almost humorous variety of other quotes from Clinton trying to talk his way out of his perjury by claiming that receiving a blowjob didn't count as "sexual relations." Ultimately, Clinton was impeached but not removed from office. He finished out his second term with high approval ratings and continues to be ranked highly in historical rankings of presidents, which rarely take into consideration anything but political actions.
"How can they tell?" – Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Parker was a prominent poet and satirist, and her work for The New Yorker led her to pen countless political one-liners. This is perhaps her most prominent, spoken of US President Calvin Coolidge. Nicknamed "Silent Cal," Coolidge was known to be stern and quiet, so upon being informed of Coolidge's death in 1930, Parker remarked, "how can they tell?"
Calvin Coolidge is an easily overlooked president in history because of his mostly inconsequential six years in office. Likewise, he was easily overlooked during his presidency thanks to his quiet, unimposing demeanor. A man of exceedingly few words, one story places him at a party where a matron bet him that she could get him to say more than three words. "You lose" was his response. Though the story is likely apocryphal, it nonetheless sums up public perception of our dourest president and provides context to Parker's pithy pronouncement.
“This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never..." – Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill is a complicated figure in world history. While rightfully praised for leading the United Kingdom through World War II, he also had a darker side that hasn't been properly explored until recently, some citing Winston Churchill as a fraud. Regardless of his qualities as a politician, Churchill's famous British wit was second to none, leading to some of the greatest political one-liners of any generation. Perhaps one of his most powerful statements, however, was given at his alma mater, Harrow School, in the midst of the second World War:
“This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
"Do we have to call the Gentleman a gentleman if he's not one?" – Patricia Schroeder
Pat Schroeder, the first woman representative from the state of Colorado, delivered many political one-liners during her 24 years in office. After her election in 1973, she often had to defend herself against sexist members of Congress. Once, when asked how she could possibly handle being both a congresswoman and a mother, she replied, "I have a brain and a uterus, and I use both."
One of her most scathing political one-liners, however, came in the early 1990s in an exchange that included then-representative from Vermont Bernie Sanders (who some say is cut from the same cloth as Donald Trump) and a now-disgraced representative from California Duke Cunningham. Cunningham refused to yield the floor to Schroeder after a tirade about "homos in the military," causing Sanders to object. Cunningham then attacked Sanders, telling him to "sit down, you socialist." Later, when Cunningham finally yielded and Schroeder took the floor, she began her statements by asking about the parliamentary procedure: "Parliamentary inquiry, Mr. Chairman—do we have to call the Gentleman a gentleman if he's not one?"