Don't Know Much About History: MSNBC's Matthews Uses Phony Winston Churchill Quote In New 'Lean Forward' Promo

May 14th, 2012 4:45 PM

MSNBC's Chris Matthews is featured in a new "Lean Forward" promo spot [embedded below page break; MP3 audio here] quoting his "hero" Winston Churchill as having asked "Then what are we fighting for?" when his finance minister suggested that the government's budget for the arts would have to cut to aid Britain's war effort.  Matthews used that story as a warning to conservatives that the nation's dire financial straits are no excuse for cutting federal spending on the arts.

But alas, it seems the story is poppycock, as Churchill historian Richard Langworth noted in a March 2009 blog post.

"Please ver­ify a Churchill story/quotation dur­ing his defense of his bud­get in front of the House of Com­mons while Lon­don was being bombed. A Mem­ber ques­tioned Churchill’s increase in the arts bud­get while Britain was fight­ing for her life. Churchill’s sup­pos­edly responded that he could jus­tify the increase "to remind us what we are fight­ing for,'" Langworth quoted reader "K.L. from Chicago."

"This alleged quo­ta­tion was raised a few years ago in the Vil­lage Voice and is all over the web, but it is not in any of Churchill’s 15 mil­lion speeches, papers, let­ters, arti­cles or books," [emphasis mine] Langworth noted, adding that "It was regur­gi­tated recently by actor Kevin Spacey to Chris Matthews of MSNBC, though the Youtube post actu­ally cor­rects the mis­quote with a tex­tual overlay."

To be fair, Langworth went on to note that "in address­ing the Royal Acad­emy on 30 April 1938, Churchill expressed sim­i­lar views" to that in the apocryphal tale. "Although he was refer­ring to paint­ing and sculp­ture, it is not hard to believe he would have applied these thoughts to the Arts in general," Langworth added.

That quote is thus:

The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.

So Churchill believed in the cultural significance of the arts and with it some measure of state support for the arts. But that doesn't mean Churchill felt arts funding was sacrosanct, even in a world war where Britain's very survival was on the line.

This isn't the first time Matthews's command of history has proven faulty. The Hardball anchor seems to believe the long-disproved legend that a cow started the Great Chicago Fire. In another famous blunder two years ago, Matthews suggested that it was right-wing dictatorships in Greece that had led to the nation's fiscal woes, when in fact left-wing democratically-elected governments had driven up the debt in the 1990s and 2000s.