What did Pauline Kael really say?

kaelPauline Kael (1919 – 2001) was film critic for The New Yorker magazine from 1968 to 1991. After the 1972 presidential election in which Richard Nixon clobbered George McGovern carrying 49 states and receiving 47 million votes to McGovern’s 29 million (mcGovern carried only Massachusetts; he didn’t even get his own state of Minnesota South Dakota), Pauline Kael famously said, “I don’t know how Nixon won. I don’t know anybody who voted for him.” If that’s what she said she must not have known many people because nearly everyone voted for Nixon that year, even in her own state of New York.

Well, except she never actually said that. At least if she did it’s not recorded anywhere. Sometimes the quote is changed by inserting Ronald Reagan’s name in place of Nixon’s. I sure Ms. Kael had some choice words after each one of Reagan’s landslide victories, but I’d have to look them up and why punish myself that way.

A piece in Vanity Fair Magazine in October, 2012 titled Fraudulent Factoid That Refuses to Die has the skinny on Pauline Kael and the quote that is, falsely it turns out, attributed to her. Here, I could go right to the heart of the matter but the author of the VF piece, James Wolcott, has some juicy words for us halfwit conservatives himself:

Conservative bloggers and pundits may know nothing about film or film reviewing but one factoid that they cite as an article of faith is that critic Pauline Kael once expressed bafflement and exasperation over the election of Richard Nixon since nobody she knew voted for him.

Now, I understand that a big part of the Republican political arsenal is to depict liberals and Democrats as elitist and out of touch, and one of the most efficient ways of doing so is by bashing Hollywood. Hollywood actors have a tendency to make statements about politics that are simultaneously lefty and snooty, and the right certainly loves to jump on it. During the early Bush Administration, Hollywood-bashing, in some quarters, was the primary argument for the war in Iraq.

In keeping with that, the supposed Kael quote is often trotted out, even as recently as this week.

But I have a huge problem with it, for several reasons: First, Kael never said it. Second, Kael is a giant of the form, one of the greatest writers on film in history. Her tremendous legacy is way, way bigger than one silly non-comment. Third, I’d venture to guess that there are as many Republicans as Democrats whose friends all voted for the same candidate. And fourth, I think history has shown that the friends of Kael’s who didn’t vote for Nixon had the right idea after all.

Conservative hayseed toothless goober that I am I don’t totally agree with the sentiments expressed by Mr. Wolcott but there is no use arguing with his central point, that Kael never uttered those words that are so infamously attributed to her. Other sources confirm it.

I’m not sure we conservative bumpkins would be any more satisfied if we knew what she really did say, but wait. We don’t have to wonder about that. James Wolcott tells what she actually said. The real quote, says he, comes from a speech Kael delivered at the Modern Language Association, on Dec. 28, 1972, as cited by the New York Times:

“I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”

Oh, don’t we feel better now!  She didn’t disparage us unsophisticated lamebrain mouth breathing schleps who voted for Nixon in 1972 quite so bad after all. But when she’s in a theater and some of us are in there too, she can feel us.

I know, I know. That last sentence should be in the past tense.  But hey, I’m just an uneducated dimwit conservative bitter clinger from flyover country.


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