James Delingpole continues his series of 365 Ways to Drive a Liberal Crazy with the following zinger in my inbox:
Quote the wisdom of Al “Nature Watch” Gore: “A zebra does not change its spots.”
Oooooh! Why that drives me to… check facts. After all, much of what Delingpole has previously claimed to be true turns out to be a little soft in the center. It’s not just James Delingpole’s problem: the conservative blogosphere and author corps in general relies on this quote to belittle Al Gore with a poor factual foundation for doing so.
Here’s our first indication that the Stupid Al Gore quote is a bit off: you’re just as likely to find Al Gore quoted as saying that “We all know the leopard can’t change his stripes.”
A Goreisms page acknowledges the uncertainty of the quote:
We all know the leopard can’t change his stripes.
The Toronto Sun, 11/19/95
[Also reported as “A zebra does not change its spots.” Attacking
President George Bush in 1992. The Toronto Sun, 11/19/95 and the book
‘The 700 Stupidest Things Ever Said’ by Ross and Kathryn Petras,
published March 1993.]
If the book “The 700 Stupidest Things Ever Said” was published in 1993, then The Toronto Sun would not be reporting the statement as news in 1995, making the citations for this supposed Al Gore quote a bit more sketchy. Making the citations even less believable is that Ross and Kathryn Petras’ book published in March 1993 wasn’t titled The 700 Stupidest Things Ever Said. There is no such book with that title. Getting the title right seems like a little thing, but it’s a little thing that you’d only get right if you actually read the book. As of today, some 82 posts by angry conservatives on the Internet nevertheless cite “The 700 Stupidest Things Ever Said,” indicating that they’ve never actually read the book they quote.
The book the Petrases had published in March 1993 was actually titled The 776 Stupidest Things Ever Said, and it is not only the source cited by the Toronto Sun article, but also by a Glasgow Herald article (unfortunately like the Toronto Sun article only available in newsbanks) and by Ann Coulter in her book Slander. What kind of a book is this? In The 776 Stupidest Things Ever Said, authors Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras don’t cite their source for any but a few of their 776 “quotations,” as you can see here:
I put the word “quotations” in quotation marks because the Petrases include a number of sayings that are described as “attributed” to someone. In a special section for “Yogi-isms,” the Petrases declare that they’ll include a number of saying supposedly by Yogi Berra even though it’s been shown that he didn’t actually say them: “…no matter. The fun of Yogi-isms is the fun of them, whether he actually said them or not.” The Petrases are also fond of quoting Samuel Goldwyn, even though by their own admission “some are clearly false… but as with Yogi Berra and Sir Boyle Roche, it really doesn’t matter whether he said it or not.” And when they don’t have any source at all, the Petrases will just name an anonymous someone-or-other, as in this coincidental remark on quotation:
These are not my figures I’m quoting. They’re from someone who knows what he’s talking about.” — congressman in debate
Is this the kind of book you want to rely on as an accurate source for a quotation?
Well, I just tossed away an hour of my life reading through the 240 pages of a copy of The 776 Stupidest Things Ever Said that I checked out from the library, and I can tell you that whatever concerns you might have about the veracity of that book are moot. You see, there is not actually any quote by Al Gore in on any page in that book. Not about zebras, not about leopards, not about anything. Perhaps, you’re thinking, the particular copy I got is the victim of some Al-Gore-quote-erasing conspiracy? Well, no. I just downloaded the electronic copy of that book too, looked through every page, and ran text searches. No Al Gore. No zebras. No leopards. Either the conservative pundits who cited The 700 Stupidest Things Ever Said or The 776 Stupidest Things Ever Said knew they were making a false attribution, or they were too negligent and sloppy to actually read the books they purported to cite.
The only actual source for a quote regarding Al Gore saying anything at all about zebras comes from the Congressional Record Daily Issue of September 18, 1991. Here’s the text of Al Gore’s remarks:
Mr. President, the Bush record on the environment is a fraud. The gap between his rhetoric and his record is as deep and broad as the Grand Canyon itself. And I just want to say this: Anyone who sees George Bush as the environmental President at the Grand Canyon ought to look closely for Elvis, alive and well, rafting by on the Colorado River. A zebra cannot change its stripes by standing on a busy street corner in a city. And neither can George Bush become the environmental President by standing in front of one of the most beautiful and scenic places in the entire world.
This is all pretty exasperating, but not in the way that James Delingpole thinks it is. Delingpole’s mistaken, misapplied, misshaped misquote, “A zebra does not change its spots,” is the result of sloppy thinking and careless sourcing in the desire for a quick zinger. It is emblematic of conservative punditry today.