11 Dumbest Quotes from Powerful People

Even the wisest of leaders can’t always avoid gaffes, wrong-headed predictions or stirring battle-cries that turn out to be bone-headed whoops. But there are different kinds of stupid in the world. Some mistakes, for instance, may have seemed like smart moves at the time.

Consider the recent ousting of Mark Hurd as CEO of HP after he’d been accused of fiddling personal expense accounts and impropriety with a contractor. The HP board thought they were doing the right, intelligent thing by nipping a possible PR debacle in the bud and dumping an exec-gone-wrong before a scandal could get started. Many industry analysts agreed with them that this was right-minded, sensible corporate governance. Hurd, widely considered the smartest if not the nicest man in the industry at the moment, got his multi-million dollar severance package – and then Larry Ellison, CEO of one of HP’s most dangerous competitors, promptly hired him, after writing a scathing letter to the New York Times saying “The HP board just made the worst personnel decision since the idiots on the Apple board fired Steve Jobs many years ago.”


The following are famous boners – some of which may have seemed wise at the time they were uttered, some of which were obvious Dodo eggs the moment they left the speaker’s mouths and even one or two that, hey, maybe weren’t so dumb after all.

“What use could this company make of an electrical toy?”

William Orton, Western Union
Photo credit: guardian.co.uk

William Orton, president, Western Union Telegraph Company

WHEN HE SAID IT: In 1876, after being offered the chance to buy the patent for the telephone.

WHY IT WAS DUMB: Uh, when was the last time you sent a telegram?

DUMB AT THE TIME? Yes, indubitably. But though Orton’s refusal of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention is considered one of the great business blunders of all time, it’s not as obvious an error as it seemed. It took a while for anyone to really “get” the telephone. Even Bell himself didn’t foresee the way people would end up using it, thinking of it as an audio version of the telegram: You would dial up Aunt Sally across town and yell down the line “Aunt Sally! I am coming!” Then you’d promptly hang up and then proceed via electric tramway to her parlour for an evening of civilized conversation and whist. Who would want to actually talk on such a frabtrapulous contraption?

THE FALLOUT: As technology converges upon it, the phone is rapidly becoming the central object in the first world. Even in the third world, cheap cell phones are revolutionizing entire economies. Meanwhile Western Union is how you send money to your deadbeat relatives. Still, their annual revenue hovers around the $US 5 billion mark annually, so don’t feel too bad for old Orton.

“Not to mince words, Mr. Epstein, but we don’t like your boys’ sound. Groups are out; four-piece groups with guitars particularly are finished.”

Dick Rowe Decca Records, The Beatles
Photo credit: youngentrepreneur.com

Dick Rowe, executive in charge of evaluating new talent for the London office of Decca Records

WHEN HE SAID IT: Early 1962

WHY IT WAS DUMB: He was talking about the Beatles.

DUMB AT THE TIME? Not particularly. Rowe was thinking about the decline in sales of the Shadows, a guitar band that was just ending a brief run at the top of the pop charts, the Beatles’ early recordings aren’t particularly prepossessing, and no one, not John, Paul, George or Ringo or even Brian Epstein, could have had any idea of the talent locked away in the quartet, or of the global explosion of teenagers that was about to change the world.

THE FALLOUT: The Fab Four were introduced to the producing genius of George Martin at EMI  – arguably the missing link that helped push them to glory – and went on to turn popular culture inside out and upside down. A chastened Dick Rowe signed the next good guitar band he could find: a nifty little beat combo by the name of the Rolling Stones.

“The only charge that anyone can level against us is one of insufficient generosity to ourselves.”

Conrad Black
Photo credit: rudhro.wordpress.com

Conrad Black, CEO of Hollinger International Inc.

WHEN HE SAID IT: In 1981, in response to critiques of his increasingly byzantine arrangements with various partners in publicly-traded companies.

WHY IT WAS DUMB: Black would have been less interesting without his frequent, bullish declarations of Darwinian Capitalism – but also less of a target. When nemesis, in the form of the US justice system, arrived, it was quotes like these that left Black with no support outside of his family and legal team, despite his recent claims to be a “a corporate-governance counterterrorist.”

DUMB AT THE TIME? Not particularly. In 1981 it was just more cartoonish bluster from the future Lord Black of Crossharbour. But in retrospect, it was a damning statement of his business world view, and a tidy encapsulation of his and his cronies’ tendency to treat public companies like piggy banks.

THE FALLOUT: After his 2007 fraud trial in Illinois, subsequent conviction and stretch as federal inmate #18330-424 in a Florida prison, Black is currently out on bail while his fraud convictions are under review. His conviction for obstruction of justice remains in place.

“640K ought to be enough [memory] for anybody.”

Bill Gates, 1981
Photo credit: maniacworld.com

Bill Gates, Chairman of Microsoft, allegedly

WHEN HE SAID IT: At an early micro-computer trade show in Seattle in mid-1981, according to various highly unreliable on-line sources.

WHY IT WAS DUMB: People say stupid things about technology (see the entry about Western Union’s William Orton) all the time. Here are a few other classic weren’t-they-idiots-back-then soundbites that may or may not be apocryphal:

“Do not bother to sell your gas shares. The electric light has no future.”
—Professor John Henry Pepper, Victorian-era celebrity scientist, sometime in the 1870s.

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
—Charles H Duell, Commissioner of US Office of Patents, 1899.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
—Watson, Chairman of the Board of IBM, 1943.

“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”
—The editors of Popular Mechanics, 1949.

Chortling over our grandfather’s misapprehension of how the telephone, airplane, steam engine or personal computer would play out is like shooting fish in a barrel, and yet we love to do it for some reason. To the extent that we’ll invent dumb sayings where none existed.

DUMB AT THE TIME? Gates is quite vehement that he never said such a thing:
“I’ve said some stupid things and some wrong things, but not that,” he responded to a questioner in the mid-90s. “No one involved in computers would ever say that a certain amount of memory is enough for all time.”

THE FALLOUT: Let’s hear from Bill again: “Meanwhile, I keep bumping into that silly quotation attributed to me that says 640K of memory is enough. There’s never a citation; the quotation just floats like a rumor, repeated again and again.”

Um…sorry, Bill.

“Simply stated, we have a new formula for Coke.”

Roberto Goizueta, New Coke
Photo credit: projects.ajc.com

Roberto C. Goizueta, Company Chairman, Coca-Cola

WHEN HE SAID IT: In 1985, introducing New Coke.

WHY IT WAS DUMB: A massively expensive launch of a product no one had asked for, New Coke was an infamous bomb.
In response to dwindling market share in the mid-1980s, Goizueta and Coca-Cola spent four million dollars inventing a newer, sweeter version of their flagship product – the first real change to the soft drink since cocaine had been removed from its formula in 1903 – and launched it with an epochal marketing push on April 23, 1985. Within a week of the new formula’s debut, one thousand calls a day were flooding the company’s 1-800 number. They were not happy calls. Six weeks after the New Coke launch, Coca-Cola was getting six thousand negative calls a day. Market share, as well as the company’s publicly traded value, plummeted. Within a matter of months, Goizueta admitted that New Coke was a colossal blunder and the company pulled the old formula out of the Atlanta bank vault it had been locked away in.

DUMB AT THE TIME? Kind of. In the moment New Coke was considered one of the biggest corporate screw-ups ever. But now, as every biz school grad knows, it’s considered a genius fluke. By 1986, after all the publicity from the New Coke fall-out and the hidden consumer passions it had revealed, the sugar water giant’s main brand was thoroughly reinvigorated, market share was stronger than ever, and the company’s shares had bounced back up to their highest value in over a decade. Despite his short-term embarrassment, Goizueta handled the recovery from this misstep with speed, skill and style. “We have heard you,” he told his customers – wise words indeed.

THE FALLOUT: Goizueta remained Chairman, Director and CEO of Coca-Cola until his death in 1997. He drank New Coke until the day he died.

“I like Mackey’s haircut. I think he looks cute.”

John Mackey, Whole Foods
Photo credit: guardian.co.uk

John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods, posting under the screen name Rahodeb, on a Yahoo Finance stock forum

WHEN HE TYPED IT: April 28, 2000.

WHY IT WAS DUMB:  Aside from the toe-curlingly obvious, the saga of John Mackey’s seven-year stretch (1999 – 2006) of “sock-puppeting” – posting about his company and competitors under an on-line alias – is one of the stranger stories to come out of recent corporate history. Hyping his company, trash-talking his competitors, praising his own canniness:  illegal? No, barely. But excruciatingly embarrassing, certainly. And more than that. Revealed by the Federal Trade Commission in 2007 as they began an investigation into Whole Foods’ attempt to acquire rival company Wild Oats – a company Rahodeb had been particularly vituperative about – his actions often just skirted the law and endangered a vital deal.

DUMB AT THE TIME? Dumb then, dumb now, dumb for all time. Even before the FTC revelation, many people knew, or strongly suspected, that Rahodeb was Mackey.

THE FALLOUT: Whole Foods completed their buyout of Wild Oats on August 27, 2007, after an intense, expensive battle with the FTC. The company is currently converting Wild Oats locations to Whole Foods rebranding. Mackey is still CEO – and still a loose cannon: on August 12th of this year, he wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed column in which he said: “the last thing our country needs is a massive new health care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and moves us much closer to a complete governmental takeover of our health care system” – immediately alienating hundreds of thousands of Whole Foods customers, who tend to the liberal, pro-health care end of the political spectrum. A boycott was launched across the United States, stores were picketed, and a Boycott Whole Foods Facebook group now has over 22,000 members. Hmmm. Maybe Rahodeb wasn’t so bad after all.

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Donald Rumsfeld
Photo credit: planetization.org

Donald Rumsfeld, US Defense Secretary

WHEN HE SAID IT: at a press conference at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium, June 6, 2002

WHY IT WAS DUMB: Well, it’s just gobbledygook, isn’t it? Known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns. Pshaww. This sort of convoluted, semantic hair-splitting is not what we want from a US secretary of defense.

DUMB AT THE TIME? We especially don’t want to hear it while the invasion and occupation of a foreign country he and his country’s army have entered for increasingly dubious-seeming reasons is developing into blood-soaked chaos and quagmire. But the thing is, he was right. As logicians will tell you, sometimes in language that has even less clarity than Rumsfeld’s, there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. And it’s wise to be aware of them – to know that there are factors you are going to be unaware of when entering into any complex situation.

THE FALLOUT: But performing like a windy semiotician at press briefings while the young men you sent into battle die from faulty forward planning, inadequate equipment and half-thought supply chains isn’t palatable politics, and Rumsfeld was eventually shown the door. This January, his mildly anticipated memoirs will be released. The title? Known and Unknown.

“Bring them on.”

George W. Bush
Photo credit: guardian.co.uk

George W. Bush, President of the United States

WHEN HE SAID IT: July 2, 2003 at a White House press conference discussing increasing violence and attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq by militants, a month after major combat operations had been declared over.

WHY IT WAS DUMB: There’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to George W. Bush – this entire list could be nothing but Bush-isms. In the end-phase of his second term in office, when even he seemed to have given up the pretense of gravitas, there were multiple books, dozens of websites, an entire industry dedicated to the profoundly stupid things Bush II used to say. So why this one quote? Why not that one about putting food on your family or being misunderestimated? Those were funny.

Because this was the purest expression of the cowboy mentality that got thousands of people – Iraqis and Americans – killed on dubious pretexts. An open invitation to mano a mano combat by a man who’d sent his own citizens to war over fudged data and outright lies: it was bravado, his defenders alleged, a tribute to American toughness. It was sickening, said everybody else, and a revealing glimpse into the fantasy world the President inhabited.

DUMB AT THE TIME? 205 American soldiers would be dead by the end of the month, and the situation was about to spiral into more years of ongoing warfare. Yup. Pretty dumb.

THE FALLOUT: To date: 4,287 U.S. army deaths in Iraq.

“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or anti-immigrant sentiment…as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Barack Obama
Photo credit: telegraph.co.uk

Barack Obama, U.S. Senator running for Democratic nomination

WHEN HE SAID IT: April 8, 2008, at a campaign fundraising event in San Francisco during the tail-end of the Democratic primaries.

WHY IT WAS DUMB: In the age of the Internet, YouTube and smartphones with 1.3 megapixel cameras, never say to a room – no matter how partisan that room – what you wouldn’t say to a nation.

DUMB AT THE TIME? Yes, and increasingly dumb as time passes and the strength and depth of the resentment Obama was talking about grows. There may well be a kernel of truth to the sentiments Obama was expressing, but the condescension and sense of remove that came through in his remarks that day, and in similar moments on the campaign trail and during his term of office, are turning out to be his biggest weaknesses. Well – those and a flat-lining economy, unpopular, unwinnable two-front war and other burdensome legacies left to him by the previous inhabitant of the White House.

THE FALLOUT: Obama weathered a tough weekend during the primaries, but survived. These days, though, “Clinging to our Guns and Religion” is a popular sign at Tea Party rallies across the country, and most pundits say Obama and his Democrats are in for a serious pummeling come this November.

“All of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years.”

Sarah Palin
Photo credit: sterlingsatellite.com

Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska and Republican VP candidate

WHEN SHE SAID IT: while responding to a request by CBS anchor Katie Couric to name the newspapers or magazines she reads, broadcast on Oct. 1, 2008.

WHY IT WAS DUMB: Most of the Couric interview – which was hardly hardball – had her on the defensive, but it was this moment that crystallised Palin for most voters: this candidate — arrogant, ill-prepared and above all, woefully uninformed — was not ready to be an aging heartbeat away from the Presidency of the United States. She later tried to characterize the question as Gotcha journalism – part of the “lamestream” liberal media’s attempt to blacken her with their tricky ways – but only her most partisan supporters could see anything other than an ill-tempered attempt to gloss over a yawning chasm of ignorance.

DUMB AT THE TIME? You betcha! She’s never fully recovered credibility, though she’s never stopped increasing her visibility. You could argue that the subsequent piling on of ridicule helped her firm up her base of alienated, Everything-I-Need-To-Know-I-Learn-From-Fox-News Tea-Partiers. And you’d have to be pretty dumb yourself to put a cap on the gullibility and resentment she’s able to tap into as she flirts with running for president in 2012.

THE FALLOUT: She lost. Then quit her job as governor to rake in lucrative book and public speaking deals. She’s been successfully rallying the extreme right, backing successful anti-masturbation Tea Party candidates, and, somewhat ironically, giving the Democrats hope that November 2010 won’t be a complete rout. With the help of TV host Glenn Beck, she’s successfully turned the US political landscape into something out of a dystopic Paul Verhoeven science fiction film.

“I would like my life back.”

Tony Hayward
Photo credit: telegraph.co.uk

Tony Hayward, CEO of BP

WHEN HE SAID IT: May 31st, 2010, just as public awareness of the scale of the disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the April 20th explosion on the BP drilling rig Deepwater Horizon was reaching its peak.

WHY IT WAS DUMB: Setting aside the fact that 11 of his employees had recently died in the explosion, Hayward was actually on an apology tour in the affected region, attempting to do some BP PR control on a stop in Venice, Louisiana, when he let drop this little woe-is-me gem. Hayward delivered a stream of similar tone-deaf gaffes throughout the crisis, persistently misreading the public’s emotional response to one of North America’s most widely covered, expensive and emotionally upsetting environmental disasters. While appalled TV audiences and Internet users were bombarded with endless, apocalyptic clips of dead and dying marine life and oil-befouled beaches, Hayward’s reactions were those of an entitled CEO dealing with an annoying business set-back.

DUMB AT THE TIME? Immediately and irrevocably. When your company has unleashed an environmental disaster of global proportions, try not to make it about you.

THE FALLOUT: He got his life back. In July, Hayward was replaced as CEO of BP by Bob Dudley.


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