King-quote nonsense finds its way to White House press briefing

Blog ››› ››› OLIVER WILLIS

The idea of the daily White House press briefing is that the media, serving some sort of public interest function, asks White House representatives for the administration's official view on the pressing issues of the day. Right about now people are concerned about war, the economy, health care, the environment, and thousands of other pressing issues. Yesterday they talked about rugs.

Q Robert, can I ask you about the Oval Office rug and the quotation that you folks attributed to Martin Luther King?

MR. GIBBS: I don't think -- well, just to be fair, I don't -- I think --

Q He said it.

MR. GIBBS: I was going to say. Let's -- well, I think we should stipulate for history that it was not us that thought he said it. It was many people that believed, I think rightly so, that he said that.

Q He did say it on more than one occasion.


Q It's been pointed out that Dr. King himself often pointed to the fact that these were the words of Dr. Theodore Parker, an abolitionist. Is Parker -- was the President aware of these antecedents?

MR. GIBBS: I have not -- Mark, I have -- we have not covered the rug today in our discussions. I would say this. I read some of the back-and-forth on this. I read the column in the Post, which we certainly all learn a lot of important history on.

Again, I'd point out that I think what King said and what Parker said are not the same thing. What's on the rug is what Dr. King had said.

Q Does the President or does the White House not believe that Parker should get some credit for --

MR. GIBBS: Well, nobody gets credit on the rug. I mean, there's -- I mean, it's just the quotes. I don't -- and Mark, I have to say, if I see you in there writing on the rug, you're going to be in a lot of trouble. (Laughter.) I'm just -- I want to get that sort of out before --

Q The names aren't -- I haven't seen the rug, but the names aren't on --

MR. GIBBS: No, I think it's just around the edges.

Is this the White House press briefing or Better Homes & Gardens?

The story, such as it is, was pushed by conservative blogs who promoted the idea that this was some sort of gaffe by the White House because the quote "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice" was attributed to Martin Luther King when the phrase is apparently originally traced to 19th-century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. The faux controversy then made its way into the pages of the Washington Post and into the mainstream press.

But, King did say it, several times. For instance on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama when he said, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

By comparison, Parker said:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Parker's comments are similar to those of King's -- and indeed, King sometimes cited Parker in offering his refrain about the "arc of the moral universe." But it is the words of King, and not those of Parker, that appear on the Oval Office rug.

Even worse, the rug in question, as White House press secretary Gibbs indicated, does not even attribute the quote to King. This entire nonsense story seems to have germinated with an erroneous White House statement that indicated an attribution that doesn't exist on the rug itself.

This non-story fails in every way possible to be the sort of issue that's worthy of being in the White House press briefing.

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