The sparkling wit of my imaginary friend

Or, two generations of A.J. Parkinson

There was a time when forgetting to attribute a quote was career suicide. That time was 1987, when Joe Biden rhapsodized about British politician Neil Kinnock’s coal-mining ancestors as though they were his own and thus took a pick-ax to his first presidential bid.

Nowadays, such a political transgression seems about as dastardly as swiping a cooling blueberry pie off of the neighbour’s windowsill. Even reviewing a compilation of foot-in-mouth footage, Biden’s extensive borrowing from the Kennedys seems more homage than plagiarism.

There’s far more interesting case of political quotation to be had in Mario Cuomo and his son Andrew. Both men served as governors of New York State, both had presidential aspirations, and both have frequently cited the wise words of A.J. Parkinson, such as:

Integrity is no substitute for experience.
In government, a dollar saved is a dollar overlooked.
When in doubt, mull.

Parkinson is a fictional character made up by Cuomo the Elder, and this fabrication is both open secret and inside joke. When The New York Times reported on it in 1984, they played along by noting that “it was understandable Mr. Cuomo would be chagrined by suggestions A. J. Parkinson might not exist” in a story headlined “Aphorisms in search of an author.

In describing Parkinson, Mario Cuomo said: “What I admire most is his pithiness. He has an incredible knack for distillation.” He added that his all-time favourite Parkinsonism was:

An author, by any other name, would sound the same.

After he became governor, Andrew Cuomo began to pay homage to his father and Parkinson, occasionally quoting A.J. Parkinson II. It must be said that the new wave of Parkinson quotes aren’t nearly as good:

You are what you build.
Don’t pass the buck without passing the bucks.
Life is better than death, even when it’s not your own.

Cuomo the Younger does deserve credit for his full-throated defence of Parkinson’s existence, though. “Prove there is no A.J. Parkinson,” he told a radio host earlier this year. “First of all that there are A.J. Parkinsons. There are numerous A.J. Parkinsons. It could be Andrew John Parkinson, it could be Aaron Judah Parkinson. I mean there are A.J. Parkinsons, so go prove that no A.J. Parkinson said that. I dare you.”

Comparing the two generations of Parkinsonisms brings to mind Mario Cuomo’s most famous line, one he definitely took credit for:

You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.

When it comes to which lines politicians are allowed to borrow, riff upon, or invent, that’s as good a standard as any. If it’s poetry, let it soar. Inspire people! Capture hearts! Bring them to their feet! If it’s prose, well, send in the fact checkers.

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Quick quips; lightning

“The only ‘ism’ Hollywood believes in is plagiarism.”
Dorothy Parker 

“I am the very master of the multipurpose metaphor,
I put them into speeches which I always feel the better for.
The speed of my delivery is totally vehicular,
I’m burning with a passion about nothing in particular. I’m well acquainted too with matters technological,
I’m able to explain myself in phrases tautological.
My language is poetical and full of hidden promises…
It’s like the raging torrent of a thousand Dylan Thomases.”
— Alistair Beaton satirizing Neil Kinnock via Gilbert and Sullivan in 1985’s The Metropolitan Mikado.

In the dying world I come from, quotation is a national vice.”
Evelyn Waugh


That was GWQ No. 60. The thing that really marks Mario Cuomo as a man of another time was his lack of opportunism: Didn’t actually run for president, didn’t take a Supreme Court seat, didn’t publish a collection of A.J. Parkinson’s wit and wisdom. In Kinnock’s original speech, he thundered that he was the first in his family in a thousand generations to go to university — but they had neither universities nor Kinnocks 20,000 years ago. So maybe Joe improved the line? Churchill borrowed plenty of quips, I wrote in Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting. Let’s hope lots of people copy you in tapping the ♥️ below.