A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from December 08, 2010
“You can’t beat somebody with nobody”

"You can’t beat somebody with nobody” is an old political axiom. No matter how poorly a political “somebody” is, that candidate can’t be beaten by “nobody.” As early as 1901, one New Jersey newspaper said “that it was impossible to defeat ‘somebody with nobody.’” In 1903, another New Jersey newspaper said that “You cannot beat somebody with nobody” was a familiar political saying.

The saying has been attributed (in 1903) to New York politician Roscoe Conckling (1829-1888), but there’s no evidence that Conckling said it. The saying has also been attributed to Nicholas Murray Butler (1862-1947), who supposedly said it in 1900 when his group opposed nominating Theodore Roosevelt for Vice President. Butler mentioned “You cannot beat somebody with nobody” in his 1939-1940 memoirs (see below).

New York Governor Benjamin Odell, Jr. (1854-1926) is given credit for using the saying while governor (1901-1904), although this would be after Butler’s probable use.

A similar political saying is “You can’t beat a horse with no horse.”


Wikipedia: Nicholas Murray Butler
Nicholas Murray Butler (April 2, 1862 – December 7, 1947) was an American philosopher, diplomat, and educator. Butler was president of Columbia University, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He became so well-known and respected that The New York Times printed his Christmas greeting to the nation every year.
(...)
Political activity
Butler was a delegate to each Republican National Convention from 1888 to 1936.

Wikipedia: Benjamin Barker Odell, Jr.
Benjamin Barker Odell, Jr. (January 14, 1854 – May 9, 1926) was an American politician from New York.

Life
He was the son of Benjamin Barker Odell who was Mayor of Newburgh.

Odell, Jr., was elected as a Republican to the 54th United States Congress, and served from March 4, 1895, to 1899. He became one of the most powerful Republican bosses at the time, serving for ten years on the New York Republican State Committee and being Chairman of its executive committee.

He was Governor of New York from 1901 to 1904, elected in 1900 and 1902.

6 October 1901, Trenton (NJ) Sunday Advertiser, “Seymour’s Victory in the Convention,” pg. 3, col. 1:
Mr. Smith was much criticized for his lack of discretion in not naming the candidate of his choice. Whenever he was approached as to the identity of his candidate he invariably replied that he had none, that he was willing to support any man but Seymour, and he left the matter to the convention for decision. So, then, it was no wonder that even his friends asserted that it was impossible to defeat “somebody with nobody.”

22 November 1903, Trenton (NJ) Evening Times, “The Drift of State Politics,” pg. 4:
Mr. Kean is going ahead actively with his candidacy, and even his opponents recognize that it is next to impossible to prevent him from making much headway when there is no one openly opposing him. In other words, to repeat a familiar political saying, “You cannot beat somebody with nobody.”

6 December 1903, Seattle (WA) , pg. 19:
“Mr. Conckling once said that ‘you cannot beat somebody with nobody,’ and it is equally true that you cannot beat a well-organized and capable political party, however wrong may be its practices and policies, with a disorganized and captious opposition, whose only attitude is one of negation and obstruction. That, unfortunately, has been very much the character of Democratic tactics in Congress in recent years.”

Google News Archive
21 May 1906, Paterson (NJ) Daily Press, “Record declares his candidacy,” pg. 10, col. 2:
In order to defeat him a candidate identified with the anti-machine forces must take the field. You cannot beat somebody with nobody.

Chronicling America
1 September 1908, New-York (NY) Tribune, pg. 6, col. 6:
“A DEFINITE, AGGRESSIVE FOLLOWING.”
From The Albany Argus (Dem.).
Nothing in the world of politics was ever yet won on a basis of being anti-something or somebody, it is an axiom that you cannot beat somebody with nobody, and it is not to be denied that Governor Hughes is somebody, and that he has a definite, aggressive following, which demands his nomination and will be content with no one else.

Google Books
The Purple or the Red
By Charles Hitchcock Sherrill
New York, NY: George H. Doran Co.
1924
Pg. 45:
Many years ago, when the author was serving on the military staff of Governor Odell of New York, there came a group wishing to oppose a certain new political leader. “Who is your candidate against him?” asked Odell. “Why,” they said, “he can easily be selected later.” The astute Governor replied, “You cannot beat somebody with nobody.”

Google Books
Political Behavior:
The heretofore unwritten laws, customs and principles of politics as practiced in the United States

By Frank Richardson Kent
New York, NY: Morrow
1928
Pg. 258:
“You can’t,” runs one of the best known of all political proverbs, “beat somebody with nobody.”

Google Books
Across the Busy Years:
Recollections and reflections

By Nicholas Murray Butler
New York, NY: C. Scribner’s Sons
1939-1940
Pg. 228:
We told him of our experiences at the Roosevelt headquarters, and strongly expressed the opinion that “You cannot beat somebody with nobody,” and that the only way to keep Roosevelt from being nominated was to produce a candidate for the Vice Presidency whose personality and fitness were of so…

Google Books
The rise of Theodore Roosevelt
By Edmund Morris
New York, NY: Ballantine Books
1980, ©1979
Pg. 723:
The only way to stop the nomination going to Roosevelt, Butler lectured, was to present the convention with another candidate of equally compelling personality. “You cannot beat somebody with nobody.”

Safire’s Political Dictionary
By William Safire
New York, NY: Oxford University Press
2008
Pg. 824:
you can’t beat somebody with nobody Political proverb used when an “out” party is jubilant over the “in” party’s unpopularity, and then is faced with the tast of finding a well-known candidate.
(...)
The proverb was current at the turn of the century, and is often attributed to the crusty “Uncle Joe” Cannon, House Speaker from 1903 to 1911. However, Louis Sebold wrote in a 1915 Boston Daily Globe: “The logic of the sound political axiom first enunciated by Odell, the most sagacious of New York Republican leaders, ‘that you can’t beat somebody with nobody,’ exactly applies to the conditions confronting the two political parties already planning for the next Presidential campaign.” ("Odell" was presumably Benjamine B. Odell, Jr. N.Y. Representative and Governor in the years around 1900.)

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityGovernment/Law/Politics/Military • (0) Comments • Wednesday, December 08, 2010 • Permalink