David Letterman Concludes His Mark Twain Prize Ceremony With A Poignant Quote About Patriotism

On Sunday, former Late Night and The Late Show host David Letterman was given the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in a star-studded telecast on PBS. Celebrity guests like Steve Martin, Martin Short and Jimmy Kimmel paid homage to their contemporary and predecessor, unsurprisingly with jokes at the expense of President Donald Trump, But it was Letterman’s concluding use of a quote by his honor’s namesake that drove his commentary’s central message home. “There’s a million quotes from Mark Twain,” he said, “and I’m going to wrap this up now with a quote. And I hope I get it correct.”

“Patriotism,” Letterman continued, “is supporting your country all the time and supporting your government when it deserves it.” The honoree got the quote right, at least in terms of the popularized version that adorns political memes and websites like Goodreads and BrainyQuote. However, the original formulation of Twain’s line, which comes from the 1905 essay “The Czar’s Soliquoly” published by North American Review, contains far more of the author’s characteristic flourishes: “The true patriotism, the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the Nation all the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it.”

Assorted changes to the language used notwithstanding, Letterman got the spirit of Twain’s quote right on Sunday. And considering its popular usage (by Trump himself in a tweet from 2014, no less), and Kimmel and Martin’s related jokes, it’s no wonder the comedian decided to employ it during his closing remarks. “It’s like you went out for cigarettes one day and left us in the hands of our abusive, orange stepfather,” ABC’s late night host told Letterman during his tribute. Martin, meanwhile, made fun of Letterman’s beard timing: “Dave has always had spot-on comedic instincts. What better time than right now to insist on looking like a Confederate war general?”

(Via Associated Press and CNN)