Did Dirksen ever say, " A billion
here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money"?
(or anything very close to that?)
Perhaps not. Based on an exhaustive search of the paper and
audio records of The Dirksen Congressional Center, staffers there
have found no evidence that Dirksen ever uttered the phrase popularly
attributed to him.
Archivists undertook the search after studying research statistics
showing that more than 25 percent of inquiries have to do with
the quote or its variations.
Here is what they examined: all of the existing audio tapes
of the famed "Ev and Charlie" and "Ev and Jerry" shows, newspaper
clippings in the Dirksen Papers, about 12,500 pages of Dirksen's
own speech notes, transcripts of his speeches and media appearances,
transcripts of Republican leadership press conferences, and Dirksen's
statements on the Senate floor as documented in the Congressional
Although Dirksen rarely prepared the text of a speech, preferring
to rely on notes, he would jot down a few words to remind him
of a particular turn of phrase. For example, in referring to
the public debt or excessive government spending, Dirksen would
write the word "pothole" to remind him to tell the following
story, on this occasion in reference to the debt ceiling:
"As I think of this bill, and the fact that the more progress
we make the deeper we go into the hole, I am reminded of a
group of men who were working on a street. They had dug quite
a number of holes. When they got through, they failed to puddle
or tamp the earth when it was returned to the hole, and they
had a nice little mound, which was quite a traffic hazard.
"Not knowing what to do with it, they sat down on the curb
and had a conference. After a while, one of the fellows snapped
his fingers and said, ‘I have it. I know how we will
get rid of that overriding earth and remove the hazard. We
will just dig the hole deeper.'" [Congressional Record,
June 16, 1965, p. 13884].
On the same occasion, Dirksen relied on yet another "spending" story,
one he labeled "cat in the well":
"One time in the House of Representatives [a colleague] told
me a story about a proposition that a teacher put to a boy.
He said, ‘Johnny, a cat fell in a well 100 feet deep.
Suppose that cat climbed up 1 foot and then fell back 2 feet.
How long would it take the cat to get out of the well?'
"Johnny worked assiduously with his slate and slate pencil
for quite a while, and then when the teacher came down and
said, ‘How are you getting along?' Johnny said, ‘Teacher,
if you give me another slate and a couple of slate pencils,
I am pretty sure that in the next 30 minutes I can land that
cat in hell.'
"If some people get any cheer out of a $328 billion debt ceiling,
I do not find much to cheer about concerning it." [Congressional
Record, June 16, 1965, p. 13884].
But there are no such reminders for the "A billion here, a billion
there . . . " tag line as there surely should have been given
Dirksen's note-making tendencies. He spoke often and passionately
about the debt ceiling, federal spending, and the growth of government.
Yet there is no authoritative reference to the "billion" phrase.
The chief evidence in support of Dirksen making the statement
comes from people who claim to have heard him. The Library of
Congress, for example, cites someone's personal observation on
the campaign trail as evidence. The Dirksen Center has received
calls from people who heard Dirksen say those words, some even
providing the date of the event. But cross-checking that information
with the records has, so far, turned up nothing in the way of
The closest documented statement came at a joint Senate-House
Republican leadership press conference on March 8, 1962, when
Dirksen said, "The favorite sum of money is $1 billion – a
billion a year for a fatter federal payroll, a billion here,
a billion there." [EMD Papers, Republican Congressional Leadership
File, f. 25] But the "and pretty soon you're talking real money" is
In another close call, the New York Times, January 23,
1961, quoted Dirksen: "Look at education – two-and-one-half
billion – a billion for this, a billion for that, a billion
for something else. Three to five billion for public works. You
haven't got any budget balance left. You'll be deeply in the
red." [Cited in Byron Hulsey's "Everett Dirksen and the Modern
Presidents," Ph.D. dissertation (May 1998, University of Texas,
Of course, the Dirksen Papers do not document completely the
late Senator's comments. For example, The Center that bears his
name does not have his testimony before committees. Their collection
of Congressional Records ends in 1965, omitting the last
four years of Dirksen's life and career – he might have
employed the phrase only late, although witnesses claim he said
it throughout his career. Dirksen's campaign speeches tended
not to produce transcripts, only sketchy notes or abbreviated
newspaper accounts. Dirksen also held center stage before the
video age, meaning that many remarks, particularly those in campaigns,
Bottom line: the late Senate Minority Leader certainly would
have endorsed the meaning behind the phrase, but it is questionable
that he ever coined it.
Update, May 25, 2004. A gentleman who called The Center with
a reference question relayed that he sat by Dirksen on a flight
once and asked him about the famous quote. Dirksen replied, "Oh,
I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I
thought it sounded so good that I never bothered to deny it."
Update, January 15, 2009. We received a call from someone in Pennsylvania who recalled a very clear, even emphatic memory of Senator Dirksen uttering this famous phrase on the “Johnny Carson Show.” This is the second person who shared such a recollection. Unfortunately, a Google search failed to turn up confirmation—apparently the “official” Web site for the “Tonight Show” has video beginning only in 1969—Dirksen died in September of that year.
Update, September 25, 2012. Historian John Steele Gordon concurs with the January 15, 2009, update. He also recalls Dirksen making the statement on Johnny Carson’s show. With regard to the lack of hard documentation authenticating the phrase, Gordon writes, “But I really don’t see a historiographical problem here. It’s long been attributed to Senator Dirksen and several people, including myself, remember him saying it at the same time and the same place. For this historian, at least, that’s good enough.” [Gordon to Mackaman, e-mail, September 25, 2012, Dirksen Information File]