(See update below.) Last night I quoted items from Stephen Budiansky and Andrew Sullivan, both about Newt Gingrich. Budiansky, whose father was an eminent professor at Harvard, said that Gingrich sounded like the cartoon version of a pointy-headed know-it-all academic, as someone who'd never known real scholars might imagine one. The headline on Sullivan's item said that Gingrich was "a dumb person's idea of a smart person."
Since then I have been inundated with messages about who "really" came up with the "dumb person's idea of a smart person" line. Some people nominate Paul Krugman. Krugman himself nominated Ezra Klein, who had applied it very aptly to Dick Armey, PhD. Alan Grayson has also been using it about Gingrich.
But it turns out that the line has been around since long before Newt Gingrich's current renaissance. Nearly two years ago in England, it was being credited to "the late satirist Willie Donaldson," who allegedly applied it to the comic Stephen Fry. Late last year the English writer Julie Birchill began a column in the Independent this way:
My husband claims that it was I who coined the line about Stephen Fry that he is "a stupid person's idea of a clever person". And if I weren't a sober person's idea of a booze-addled person, I might be more useful in remembering whether this is true or not. Whatever, it's pretty damn good.
I have no doubt that with further effort people will find instances coming from Oscar Wilde, or Mark Twain, or Jonathan Swift, or Moliere, or on back perhaps to Aristophanes or Sun Tzu.
So let's stop the hair-splitting and agree: the person who came up with the line was me. Now, back to work.
UPDATE. OK, either it was me in 2011, or someone else 75 years earlier. Courtesy of Joshua Friedman,
Elizabeth Bowen writing about Aldous Huxley in the Spectator, December 11, 1936:
"Mr. Huxley has been the alarming young man for a long time, a sort of perpetual clever nephew who can be relied on to flutter the lunch-party ... He is at once the truly clever person and the stupid person's idea of the clever person."
We want to hear what you think. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.