May 2, 2012

“Speak softly and carry a big stick” – from Teddy Roosevelt to Joe Biden to Jack Nicholson…


“Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
       Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858-1919)
       American politician who served as the 26th President of the United States 
       One of Roosevelt’s favorite sayings, which he popularized but didn’t coin
       According to many sources, Roosevelt’s first documented use of the saying was in a letter he wrote on January 26, 1900 when he was the Governor of New York. In the letter (to New York legislator Henry L. Sprague), Roosevelt used it in reference to his recent victory in a political scuffle over who he appointed as the state’s Insurance Commissioner. Powerful leaders in the State Assembly wanted him to reappoint their corrupt crony, Louis Payn. Roosevelt refused and threatened to take the fight public, forcing them to back down. Roosevelt wrote in the letter: “I have always been fond of the West African proverb: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’ If I had not carried the big stick, the organization [i.e., the legislature] would not have gotten behind me.”
       Roosevelt’s first famous public use of “Speak softly and carry a big stick” was in a speech at the Minnesota State Fair on September 2, 1901, when he was serving as Vice President of the United States under President William McKinley. He linked it in that address to the Monroe Doctrine, the longstanding U.S. policy against interference of European countries in the affairs of countries in the Western Hemisphere. Roosevelt said: “There is a homely adage which runs ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick – you will go far.’ If the American nation will speak softly, and yet keep at a pitch of the highest training a thoroughly efficient navy, the Monroe Doctrine will go far.’” He used the same lines in another oft-cited speech in Chicago on April 2, 1903, after he had been catapulted into the presidency by the assassination of McKinley — and probably in other stump speeches he gave that year during a widely-covered tour of the country.
       Since Roosevelt’s presidency, the term “big stick policy” has been employed as a common political term, especially in reference to U.S. foreign policy. It is generally used to refer to policy positions that will be backed up with military force if necessary.
       “Speak softly and carry a big stick” has also become a more general saying suggesting that a person should not make blustery threats, but should be ready to use force or leverage to get their way.
       There doesn’t seem to be any proof that the saying started out as a West African proverb, as Roosevelt claimed (perhaps jokingly) in his letter to Henry L. Sprague. His later description of it as an adage that existed before he used it is probably true. But Teddy certainly deserves credit for making it a familiar saying and it will be forever be cited as one of his most famous quotations.


“President Obama has said, and I quote, now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition we have built. Now is the time to heed the timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: ‘speak softly and carry a big stick.’ I promise you, the President has a big stick. I promise you.”
       Joe Biden
       Democratic politician and Vice President of the United States
       In a widely-reported speech at New York University on April 26, 2012
       Biden’s apparent double entendre about the size of President Obama’s, er, stick sparked laughter from his audience and many jokes on talk shows. It’s hard to know whether it was another Biden gaffe or a deliberate attempt at lame humor. In context, Biden’s big stick comments were part of an attack on Obama’s Republican Presidential challenger, Mitt Romney, who had suggested he would declare war on Iran if that country seemed to be continuing an effort to develop nuclear weapons. Biden warned: “This kind of Romney-talk is just not smart.” He then accurately quoted something Pres. Obama had said in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on March 4, 2012. Then he went a metaphor too far.


“I want to carry the big stick. I hope I don’t have to use it, but I want to make sure we have it so that people understand we are a nation of strength.”
       Mitt Romney
       Republican politician and presidential candidate
       In a speech in Dubuque, Iowa on June 16, 2007, during his previous failed attempt to win the Republican nomination for President


“Speak softly, but carry a big can of paint.”
       UK-based artist and social activist best known for his outdoor graffiti art 
       A quote widely attributed to the edgy artist (who keeps his real name secret)


“Walk softly and carry an armored tank division, I always say.” 
       Jack Nicholson as Col. Nathan R. Jessup in the movie A Few Good Men (1992)
      (See this post for some funny variations on Nicholson’s most famous line from the film.)

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