There is a theory that memory is creative. According to Ruth Day of Duke University, this means that people can remember things that never happened. About 25 years ago, I was selected to participate in a National Science Foundation study at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. As part of that week-long conference, Dr. Day presented lists of words to the 20 college professors who were present. Sure enough; most of us “remembered” words that were not on the lists.
I bring up this little incident from my past because of something that recently surprised me. I was reading an article about government expenditures and the national debt when a vision flashed through my mind. For a few seconds, I was at the home of a former girlfriend, and her mother got up from her chair to turn up the volume on the television because Sen. Everett Dirksen was about to speak. The year was 1964, and Dirksen (a Republican from Illinois) was complaining about government spending. I vividly remember him saying, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” We all laughed.
But, apparently that never happened. Over the past couple of days, I’ve checked out some of the most reliable sources available, and there is general agreement that Dirksen never spoke those words. In fact, the Dirksen Congressional Research Center reports that a man who shared a flight on an airplane asked the senator about the quotation. He said that Dirksen’s response was, “Oh, I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so good that I never bothered to deny it.”
Staffers at the research center listened to all of the audiotapes from various shows on which Dirksen appeared, read all newspaper clippings, went through 12,500 pages of the senator’s own notes, reviewed transcripts of Republican leadership press conferences, and examined Dirksen’s statements on the Senate floor. They could find no reference to the “billion here, billion there” comment that I remember so well. However, they also found that Dirksen seldom wrote out a prepared speech. Often he would just jot down a word or two to remind him of a story or anecdote...