"He may be a _____, but he's our _____"

Bonnie Taylor-Blake taylor-blake at NC.RR.COM
Fri Aug 3 19:04:46 UTC 2007

List members have previously touched on one of my favorite political
observations, which Fred includes in his _Yale Book of Quotations_.  There,
the attribution is to FDR [p. 647]:

[Of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza:]  He may be a son of a bitch, but
he's *our* son of a bitch.  [Quoted in *Washington Quarterly*, Summer 1982]

In case we're looking for early sightings of that attribution, it's worth
noting that *Time Magazine* printed the following in its 15 November 1948

In 1939 [Somoza] got himself elected for eight more years.  And he went to
Washington.  To prime President Roosevelt for the visit, Sumner Welles sent
him a long solemn memorandum about Somoza and Nicaragua.  According to a
story told around Washington, Roosevelt read the memo right through,
wisecracked:  "As a Nicaraguan might say, he's a sonofabitch but he's ours."
[From "I'm the Champ,"


I think it's also worth noting, though, that the basic "punchline" had been
floating around Washington since well before 1939.  For example, the
anecdote was tied to FDR, in a fashion, in J.C. Franklin's _The New
Dealers_, published by Simon & Schuster in 1934.  An excerpt appeared in
*The Washington Post* early that year:

After the Chicago Convention, Gen. Hugh Johnson, who had worked hard with
Barney Baruch to stop Roosevelt, was asked what he thought of his
nomination.  Johnson replied by recalling a story of a county convention of
Democrats in which the wrong man had been chosen.  Driving home from the
meeting, two politicians were comparing notes.  Both had opposed the
successful candidate.  One said to the other, "Damn it all!  We should never
have let them put Blank over.  He's a So and So!"  The other man sighed and
said nothing for a long time.  Then he cheered up.  "After all," he
observed.  "Blank isn't so bad.  He's our So and So."  [12 February 1934,
Pg. 1; ProQuest Historical.]


In fact, a similar version, featuring the appointment of an unnamed "party
man," had appeared in *The Post* just a few months prior to Time's 1948
publication of its FDR/Somoza anecdote.  A short piece written on the death
of Senator James Watson [Indiana], the "last Republican majority leader in
the Senate before the Roosevelt era," includes this telling:

Senator Watson used to tell a story of Uncle Joe which shall be our
contribution to the stock of reminiscences about Jim Watson.  One day in the
House the Speaker spoke about a party man as a deserving appointee for some
vacant post.  "But you couldn't recommend him," said young Watson.  "He's a
so-and-so."  "Yes, he may be," said Uncle Joe, "but, my boy, he's *our*
so-and so, isn't he?"  [From "James E. Watson," The Washington Post, 3
August 1948, Pg. 10; ProQuest Historical.]


Which looks to be related to an anecdote told 80 years earlier:

The Cincinnati *Enquirer* has the following sharp cut on radical presses and
orators:  "A politician, on a certain occasion, accosted a member of his
party, who had some conscience and sense of propriety, to persuade him to
vote for a candidate whose character was none of the best.  'Why, he is a
great rascal!' was the indignant response.  'Ah! But he is our rascal,' was
the rejoinder. [...]"  [From "The Difference," *Newark [OH] Advocate*, 11
September 1868; 19th-Century Newspapers database.]


As others (elsewhere) have pointed out [1], "he's a so-and-so, but he's our
so-and-so" bears some resemblance to a popular anecdote said to have
involved U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Pennsylvania; 1792-1868) and cited well
into the 20th century:

Speaking of the probable contests for seats in the next Congress, the Boston
Herald says:  "The republicans are not over-scrupulous, when in power, as to
the management of contested cases.  In fact, their morality was well
illustrated by the characteristic remark of Thad. Stevens, when it was said
that both claimants of a disputed seat were 'd-----d rascals,' 'I don't
doubt it,' said the grim old 'whip,' 'but what I want to know is, which is
our d-----d rascal?'  [From "Current Political Gossip," *The Galveston Daily
News*, 26 November 1880; 19th-Century Newspapers database.]

"He's a damned rascal," said Thad. Stevens bluntly on a similar occasion,
"but as he's *our* damned rascal we must put him in."
[From "Credit Where It Belongs," *The Washington Post*, 22 July 1882, Pg. 2;
ProQuest Historical.]


My guess is that an anecdote involving "[he may be a _____,] but he's our
_____" (and similar) was already pretty familiar to office-holders,
political pundits, and Washington wags by the time FDR started his first
term.  That it had been brought out again in 1934 and applied to FDR's
nomination in 1932 (consequently making FDR "our son of a bitch") must have
gotten some additional notice in Washington and at the White House.

I think it's a little hard to know whether FDR -- perhaps remembering his
prior association with the anecdote -- ever really used the line (in jest)
in the late '30s or whether someone else just recycled the anecdote,
attributing the line to the President in reference to some Latin American
dictator, but my hunch is that the latter is more likely.

-- Bonnie

[1] See, for example, this 1998 post to alt.quotations,


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