STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This week, Congress dedicates a bust of Winston Churchill in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. It's meant to honor the British statesman's legacy of determination and resolve. He is the man who, as he became prime minister during World War II, flatly told his country I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. Churchill's view of the United States, as well as his wit, are summed up in an oft-quoted line that Maine Senator Angus King used during the recent Congressional debt ceiling debate.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
SENATOR ANGUS KING: Winston Churchill once famously observed that Americans will always do the right thing only after they have tried everything else.
INSKEEP: American politicians have gotten a lot of mileage out of that line - maybe too much, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: There are whole volumes dedicated to the famous sayings of Winston Churchill. But it's that backhanded compliment to America that's especially popular on this side of the Atlantic.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECHES)
REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: One of my favorite politicians in history is Winston Churchill.
REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: The great British statesman, Winston Churchill.
REPRESENTATIVE JAIME HERRERA BEUTLER: Winston Churchill said that Americans can always be counted on to...
RYAN: And he said Americans can be counted upon...
COLE: ...to do the right thing after they've exhausted every other possibility.
BEUTLER: They've exhausted all other possibilities.
HORSLEY: Representatives Paul Ryan, Tom Cole and Jaime Herrera Beutler are just a few of the many American lawmakers who've borrowed that line to add gravitas and a bit of humor to their speeches. Virginia Senator Mark Warner often turns to Churchill to provide a light-hearted conclusion to an otherwise gloomy message about the U.S. debt burden.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
SENATOR MARK WARNER: Rather than leaving an audience dark, say, you know, and when I feel really bad, I always remember that great Churchill quote: You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they've tried everything else.
HORSLEY: Warner used the line so often, his staff decided to put it on a plaque or some other memento. But when they went to research the origins of the line, they came up empty, despite blood, toil, tears and sweat.
RICHARD LANGWORTH: I wish I could substantiate it that he said it. But so far, I cannot.
HORSLEY: That's Richard Langworth, editor of the journal Finest Hour, published by Winston Churchill.org. Langworth has combed through millions of words written by and about Churchill, and he found no evidence the former prime minister ever said that about America. Langworth says that's not unusual. Like Mark Twain or Yogi Berra, Churchill didn't say half the things he's supposed to have said, including the famous comeback to Lady Astor, who supposedly told Churchill if they were married, she'd put poison in his coffee.
LANGWORTH: And Churchill supposedly responds to Lady Astor: If I were married to you, I'd drink it. But that turned out to be F.E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead, Churchill's very, very dear friend, who was much faster off-the-cuff than he was. But because Birkenhead is forgotten, it's been ascribed to Churchill.
HORSLEY: Nigel Rees, the host of a long-running BBC quiz show, "Quote...Unquote," found so many examples of this oratorical identity theft, he coined a phrase for it: Churchillian Drift.
NIGEL REES: What I meant by that was people, if they don't know who came up with a remark originally, or if they can't be bothered to look it up, they automatically ascribe the quotation to somebody who likely said it. And, obviously, Winston Churchill is a very quotable person. He did say some marvelous things in a very special way.
HORSLEY: Rees says thanks to the Internet, it's easier these days to check the validity of famous quotations. But it's also gotten easier to spread misinformation.
REES: If but one person puts on the Internet that Sir Churchill said something, well, then it gets repeated by about 200 other people.
HORSLEY: When Senator Warner's staff informed him that Churchill never uttered those words about America reliably doing the right thing eventually, he was only a little bit sheepish.
WARNER: If Churchill didn't say it, he should have.
HORSLEY: That's because, Warner says, the line reflects an underlying optimism in the way Americans see ourselves.
WARNER: Sometimes it takes us stumbling around a little bit, but we ultimately get to the right place. And Lord knows we've done an awful lot of stumbling around in the last few years.
HORSLEY: So, even if this particular line wasn't Churchill's finest hour, don't expect American politicians to stop quoting it. They'll quote him on the beaches. They'll quote him in the streets. And they'll never, never, never, never, never give in. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.