Truman nonquote: ‘If you want a friend, get a dog’ — as used by corporate raider Carl Icahn

What are the origins of the gem, “If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog,” a quote falsely attributed to the late Harry S. Truman, as I noted in The Solomon Scandals? I’ve been doggedly at work on the case for two years. No definitive answer so far.

This immortal witticism or at least a version of it popped up in the 1975 play Give ’em Hell, Harry! (“You want a friend in life, get a dog!”). Later a Reagan man ventured into the territory. Gordon Gekko spoke a variant in the movie Wall Street, and now here’s another usage, by Carl Icahn, the corporate raider. Zelig Robinson, an ardent Truman fan who showed Mr. Buck Stops Here around Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1956 when HST visited Harvard and Mr. Robinson was a law student there, kindly shared Icahn-related details from the 1980s-1990s. I’ll reproduce them with Mr. Robinson’s permission.

“‘Get a dog,’” he tells us, “was the retort of Carl Icahn to a comment by the then Chairman of U.S. Steel shortly after Icahn badly wounded U.S. Steel in an Icahn-led greenmail raid, and it was in response to something across the table at a one-on-one lunch to which the U.S. Steel Chair invited Icahn for the purpose of making peace. The Chairman said something to the effect that having met Icahn and been bruised by him, he thought he needed a friend on Wall Street, to which Icahn simply responded, ‘Get a dog.’ This was reported with the quote in either the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times at the time.” I don’t know about Mr. Icahn’s first usage, but sure enough at least one clip from the New York Times does attribute to him without a date cited: “You learn in this business if you want a friend, get a dog.”

Mr. Robinson adds about Mr. Icahn’s takeover struggle: “The battle went on intermittently from the mid 1980’s into the early ’90s; Icahn never obtained voting control over U.S. Steel and finally took his greenmail and left in or around ’91. I doubt Truman ever uttered it [the dog quote] or that anyone who paid attention to Washington during Harry Truman’s lifetime ever heard the expression, from him or anyone else.”

image I agree, and so do others. I’d respectfully suggest that the New York Times, where the supposed Trumanism has appeared on a bunch of occasions, issue a correction—just as the fictitious Rebecca Kitiona-Fenton, Ph.D., requests in the epilogue of The Solomon Scandals. She is writing in the late 21st century, some 100 years after after the main plot of Scandals. I hope that Times, among my favorite newspapers, does not take that long.

Hello, Maureen Dowd (photo), queen of the Times op-ed page? Why have you ignored my email on this? I also struck out at the office of Clark Hoyt, the then-Times’ ombudsman. The weak excuse was that the office don’t worry about such old quotes: not very convincing when the problematic words keep showing up again and again and no one apparently can back them up. Journalism is like sausage-making and law-making—the factory floor isn’t always immaculate—but we can all do our best despite the bloody mess sticking to our shoes. Ms. Dowd and fellow scribes, get out your mops! As a Truman fan who spent time with the man and could size him up, Mr. Robinson cares with lawyerly passion about the details. And as an HST booster whose mother’s family knew Truman’s ex-business partner, Edward Jacobson, I do, too, even if I’m innocent of lawyerdom and never met the buck-stopper.

imageThe name game: Mr. Robinson, a former IRS attorney who also served as a lawyer for a key investigative subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives, is now with Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander, in Baltimore, Maryland. The Rothman in the firm’s name died last year and was probably not a relative of mine, although you never know. As for “Zelig,” VIPs and coincidences, yes, I can’t help but think of a memorable Woody Allen movie.

Detail: Notice? Mr. Robinson isn’t claiming that the Icahn usage preceded the one in Give ‘Em Hell Harry. So far my impression is that it did not. Just for fun, as a long shot, I’ll see if I can’t reach Carl Icahn himself and ask if he has anything to add and can give us the exact date he first used the quote, and perhaps he can even reveal what inspired him to say it. Did he see or read about the Truman play?

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David Rothman

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