President Obama quotes Brandeis (Sort Of)


It’s not every day you get a call from the White House. And since it isn’t likely to happen to me again, I figured I might as well write about it here. The incident didn’t end the way I had hoped it would, but at least I got a semi-interesting story out of it.

It happened this last Monday night, about three hours after I had gotten off from work. I got a call from Will, one of my co-workers at the library. He apologized for calling when I was off work, but he said one of the speechwriters for President Obama had called from the White House. They wanted to verify a Brandeis quote and they needed it done that night. So I called her back. It turned out that she and her co-workers were working on a speech for the President and they wanted to use what they thought was a Brandeis quote: “The most important office is that of public citizen. It is even more important than the office of president or prime minister.” Or something to that effect. The problem was that they couldn’t find any attribution on the web and as a result, a number of the speech writers were convinced that it was apocryphal. So she was asking me if I could verify that that was something Brandeis had really said and point out where and when it had happened. Oh, and could I do it in the next hour or two?

Well, sure. The only problem was that I was a mile and a half from home and I was on foot. So I had to (quickly) walk back to my house and then hop into my car and drive back onto campus. It didn’t take me too long to track it down and I soon was able to tell them that the quote came from an article in the April 14 issue of the Boston Record and the full quote went like this:

The most important office and the one which all of us can and should fill is that of private citizen. The duties of the office of private citizen cannot under a republican form of government be neglected without serious injury to the public.

The speech writer seemed a little disappointed. Was I sure there wasn’t any mention of the office of president? Nope, that somehow got added on by later people. I asked when the speech was going to be and if this meant that the quote wasn’t going to be used. She said that the speech was going to be sometime later this week and that they would probably paraphrase the quote.

And that is exactly what happened. President Obama used it in his speech to the Clinton Global Initiative yesterday:

As we do every time this year, Presidents and Prime Ministers converge on this great city to advance important work. But as leaders, we are not the most important people here today. It is the civil society leaders who, in many ways, are going to have the more lasting impact, because as the saying goes, the most important title is not president or prime minister; the most important title is citizen.

Paraphrased indeed and no mention of Brandeis. Oh well. At least I get to say I hand a hand in the writing of a presidential speech. That’s not quite accurate but then neither is their quote.

(Update 10/26/2016: Obama must be fond of the quote. He has dropped it twice recently. Once at a fund raiser for Hilary Clinton and again a few days later on the Jimmy Kimmel Live. It seems like he is looking forward to becoming a private citizen again.)

She had also asked me to email her a copy of the newspaper article and since I have it at hand I figured I might as well post it. It’s an interesting read. The quote was part of Brandeis’ response to the rumor started by another newspaper that he was planning on running as a candidate for mayor of Boston. Apparently the other newspaper accused Brandeis of representing some corrupt corporations among other things. The accusations are interesting as is Brandeis’ measured response to them.


Update 10/26/16: While rooting around Brandeis’s papers, I came across what appears to be the first draft of the above letter. It is not handwritten, unfortunately, but rather it appears to have been dictated. Normally, this would not be that exciting, but if you look closely at the letter (I have uploaded it below) you will see something interesting. There is very little difference between the typed version of the letter and the way it was published, but there are some corrections written on the letter, like a couple inserted words and the change in order of the paragraphs. And if you look closely at the section that has the “private citizen” language, you will see that a number of words have been crossed out. The sentence originally read, “What I have desired to do is to make the people of Boston realize that the private citizen has a very important office to fill as a private citizen…” It is like he started off in one direction and then realized in mid-sentence that the language needed tightening up.He obviously knew that the revised language was much more effective but I wonder if he ever imagined that people would still be quoting it over a hundred years later?

Original copy of first draft of Brandeis's April 14, 1903 letter to the Boston Traveler.


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