Before Donald Trump’s mangled syntax there was George W Bush, whose greatest hits included “Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?”, “Families is where our nation finds home, where wings take dream”, and the deathless “They misunderestimated me”.
But the 43rd president reminded Americans what they had been missing on Thursday when he put words in the mouth of Winston Churchill that, according to historians, the British wartime prime minister never said.
Accepting the Atlantic Council thinktank’s distinguished international leadership award in Washington, Bush told guests at a gala dinner: “It’s very important for our fellow citizens to remember these words from Winston Churchill: ‘America is indispensable for the world and the dangers of isolation loom.’”
It was, as a press release from the Atlantic Council and various media reports noted, a pungent remark at a time when critics say the US is increasingly turning inward under Trump. But there does not appear to be any record of Churchill – an evergreen source of wit and wisdom for after-dinner speakers in Washington – ever using the line.
American historian Lynne Olson,author of Troublesome Young Men:The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England, said: “I’ve never run across this sentence before. He certainly could have said it, but in all my research into the many statements he made about the US before and during the war, I’ve never seen it.”
Michael Bishop, executive director of the International Churchill Society and director of the new National Churchill Library and Center at George Washington University, agreed but added: “While Churchill never uttered those precise words, he certainly expressed similar sentiments.
“I wonder if the speechwriter mixed up the citation, or perhaps the president did in his delivery, mentioning Churchill before that sentence rather than afterward. The following quotes were generally accurate.”
Bush went on to quote from a speech that Churchill gave at Harvard University in September 1943. It contained lines such as: “The people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility.” The former president added: “I wholeheartedly agree.”
He then made the case for securing Pepfar, a programme that started during his presidency that has saved the lives of more than 13 million people in Africa who are suffering from HIV/ Aids.
The other Atlantic Council honorees were Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the US military’s European Command, Howard Schultz, executive chairman of Starbucks, and Gloria Estefan, the Grammy award-winning singer. Guests at the Ritz-Carlton hotel included Trump cabinet members Wilbur Ross and Steven Mnuchin, economic adviser Larry Kudlow and former communications director Anthony Scaramucci.
Richard Langworth, senior fellow at the Hillsdale College Churchill Project in Moultonborough, New Hampshire, also stated that Churchill never uttered the words quoted by Bush.
Freddy Ford, a spokesperson for Bush, said in an email: “That line was simply mis-delivered by accident … It was an innocent mistake.”
He provided the text of what Bush had intended to say: “It’s very important for Americans to remember these words from Churchill about America’s indispensable role in the world and the dangers of isolationism that loom: ‘The price of greatness is responsibility.’”