st. bobby
i'll be back in a coupla months

no one i know reads pauline kael

It should come as no surprise to anyone who visits this blog that Pauline Kael was and is a great influence on my writing ... I use a Kael quote as the site's motto, fer chrissake! So you'd think I'd be happy to know that so many people are quoting Pauline lately. Heck, I saw Ron Silver quote her on teevee just the other day.

It's a Republican meme ... to demonstrate the disconnectedness of the liberal mind from mainstream America, you just quote Pauline Kael, who is reported to have said, on the 1972 electoral victory of Richard Nixon over George McGovern, "How can that be? No one I know voted for Nixon!" There are variants ... the quote itself varies, once in awhile she's said to have made the statement about Ronald Reagan, and the people citing her refer to Kael variously as a film critic or a theater critic or a book reviewer, who wrote for The New Yorker or The New York Times.

That they can't get the quote exactly right suggests Kael said it rather than wrote it, I suppose. That they can't get her job description or employer right suggests they don't know what they are talking about, I suppose. But the truth is, that sounds like something Kael would say ... not something she would believe, but something she would put into the mouth of a fictional other as a way of poking holes in them.

Here's the thing. I have an entire shelf in my house consisting of nothing but Pauline Kael books. I have every anthology of her work that was ever published ... every individual compilation from I Lost It at the Movies through Movie Love, the original Citizen Kane Book, the massive For Keeps, and the short reviews of 5001 Nights at the Movies. I also have a book of Kael's interviews over the years, Conversations with Pauline Kael, Francis Davis's Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael, and Craig Seligman's Sontag & Kael. I looked through the indexes of every one of those books and checked out every listed reference to Richard Nixon, and I could not find the infamous quote.

So I looked online. I googled "kael nixon" and got 2,890 hits. I read as many of them as I could bear, and didn't find a single one that provided an actual citation for the quote. I tried Amazon's A9 search engine, which allows you to search the texts of books. I got one clear hit, from page 30 of Bernard Goldberg's Bias, where he refers to the "famous observation" of Kael ... since I don't have the book myself, I can't check to see if Goldberg documents his quote.

The point is clear: as far as I can tell, Pauline Kael never made this "famous observation." I'm hoping that someone will read this ... perhaps some conservative who happens upon this post via the wonders of Google ... and give me a clear citation. Best guess is Goldberg has it ... it's at least possible that the meme begins with Goldberg's book. I might go down to the bookstore and see if I can find out for myself. But in the meantime, if anyone has a citation for this supposed quote, let me know.



I'll do what I can to help out, though you're right--my own Google search brings up similar head-scratching results, including the transposition from Nixon to Reagan--strange. It's like that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" quote, which has been attributed over the years to everyone from Elvis Costello to Frank Zappa to god knows who else (and which, according to Robert Christgau who insists as much in an interview somewhere, was actually uttered by Thelonious Monk, though again, I'd like to see the source).


Goldberg is not a reliable source for accurate pagination, much less matters of fact.


I can't help with this quote, but I did grow up reading Pauline Kael in Madrid. My grandmother gave my mother a subscription to the New Yorker so she'd have something to read to keep her connected... so I'd leaf through the funnies and get to Pauline Kael at the back. Watching Woody Allen dubbed into Spanish was interesting (it was a travesty, actually) but with her help I was able to make it through, understand why this was important. I think she was my introduction to thinking critically.


I can't help with sources on the supposed Kael quote except to say: it sounds suspiciousy like a joke that was circulating *post* Watergate that went to the effect that after Nixon'd fall from grace it became difficult to find the 1 in 2 voters who voted for him in '60, much less,e that voted for him in '68 or '72. It seems likely that the desire of many to dissassociate themselves from Tricky Dick after Watergate somehow morphed into an elitist comment by someone in the blue states claiming not even to know anyone in the red states, be that state of the union or state of mind.

Its all very reminiscient of the claim , said to be documented somewhere, that we only use %10 of our brains.It may appy to of some of those who say it, but it can't be documented because it just isn't true.

David Rothschild

I emailed David Edelstein, Slate's film critic, about the issue in 2002. I don't have the e-mail anymore, but I believe although he was unclear on the exact sourcing as well that it was during a college Q & A, where she was asked about politics and said "Why ask me? I don't even know anybody who voted for Nixon."


While I don't doubt that Edelstein emailed you with his opinion, I hope I'm forgiven if I don't take a second-hand story from someone who was "unclear on the exact sourcing" and who adds a new angle, that it was during a college Q & A, as concrete evidence.

As I noted in a post a month after the one we're commenting on here, Craig Seligman, a friend of Kael's in her later years, claimed in an email to me that Kael herself told him she never said it. In the absence of any concrete evidence to the contrary, I'm saying that's conclusive enough for me.


According to Wikipedia (, "In 1972, a Wall Street Journal reporter asked Kael her feelings on the recent re-election of Richard Nixon. She replied that it would be inappropriate for her to comment, as nobody she knew had voted for him." Unfortunately, no source is provided for this.


It would also be nice if you quoted the entire Wikipedia entry:

Nixon "Quote"

In 1972, a Wall Street Journal reporter asked Kael her feelings on the recent re-election of Richard Nixon. She replied that it would be inappropriate for her to comment, as nobody she knew had voted for him. This story became garbled in later years, and is now frequently told as if the "Nobody I knew voted for him" statement was an expression of her disbelief at his re-election; it is often trotted out as an example of New York elites being out of touch.


I read somewhere that it was not Pauline Kael but Susan Sontag who said it.

Steven Rubio

Not sure who reads these long-after-the-fact comments, but I received an email today that led me to reconsider one of my comments above, and I wanted to speak to that point in case others come to this post via Google.

At one point, someone recalls an email exchange with critic David Edelstein where the commenter claimed Edelstein had helped explain the infamous Kael quote. I replied that I wasn't convinced by vague second-hand recollections. In the context of the long search for specific concrete information about Kael's quote, I found the comment to be just another in a series of nothing. I did not mean that David Edelstein was wrong; I meant that I wasn't won over by someone telling me an unclear anecdote they remembered from Edelstein.

Re-reading all of this, I can see that it appears I'm suggesting Edelstein was the clueless one. That wasn't my intention, then or now.

Hopefully I'll have some useful and interesting followup on this soon.

A chicken in every pot

New York Times December 28 1972

"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."


Republicans should be careful handling Pauline Kael, seeing she wasn't stupid. They could hurt themselves. Sorta like orcs shouldn't be eating elvish waybread. I have a few collections of her review in storage and I'll have to dig them up sometime. And she loved the Blues Brothers movie. Tip o' the hat.

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