Truman dog quote mystery: Help for me from ex-Senator, but still no solution

imageUpdate: I’ve now traced the quote to a Reagan Administration official, who, however, can’t recall where he heard it. See addendum. – D.R.

For close to a year, I’ve tried to crack a Washington mystery. What’s the origin of the famous Truman quote, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog”?

In The Solomon Scandals, I put the line in the mouth of a talking Afghan Hound doing a Truman act at the Cosmos Club. But I alerted my novel’s readers that the quote is rather iffy—in fact, probably just a variant of a 1975 play’s line that appeared without “in Washington.”

Nancy Landon KassebaumMeanwhile I’ve succeeded in tracing the Washingtonized quote back at least as far as a June 1987 statement to the New York Times from then-Senator Nancy Kassebaum.

But where did the daughter of 1936 Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon—now Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker, following her marriage to Howard Baker, Jr., the former Senate minority leader—encounter the quote?

A gracious reply from Alf Landon’s daughter

I emailed her this week via her husband’s law office and received a gracious reply by phone.

“I’m sure it was in a paper,” she said, perhaps the New York Times or the Washington Post.  Well, I’ve searched the Times as best I could through the Net. And now I’ll see if I can’t get a librarian or someone else to check the Post.

image Ex-Sen. Kassebaum recalled the sentence as including “in Washington” and said she used it while believing that it originated  from Truman rather than from the 1975 play, Give ’em Hell, Harry. Playwright Samuel Gallu had him say, “You want a friend in life, get a dog!”

Whatever happened, I’m 100 percent confident that she acted in perfectly good faith. Furthermore, she’s been a wonderful good sport about this, and in fact plans to order a copy of Scandals from a favorite independent bookstore in Tennessee, Carpe Librum. Nice for my ego, of course. Meanwhile I’d still love to solve the mystery and get to the quote’s true origins. Suggestions welcomed!

Addendum, 1:38 p.m.: The New York Public Library has just pointed me to an article in a Hillsdale College publication called Imprimis—based on a November 1985 presentation by a Reagan Administration official named Donald J. Devine.

The quote as used there reads, “If you need a friend in Washington, buy a dog.” Reached by phone at his offices at the American Conservative Union, where he is editor of Conservative Battleline, Dr. Devine told me: “I’ve been using  that since I was director of the Office of Personnel Management. I don’t know where it comes from. I probably stole it. I’m sure I heard it from someone else.” But whom? As in the case of ex-Sen. Kassebaum, I doubt Dr. Devine just made the quote up. The mystery lingers on.

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David Rothman

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