The definition of insanity, as Albert Einstein once famously put it, is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week in a preemptive strike against President Obama’s proposed jobs bill. He was unsheathing a now-voguish truism among right-wingers: Freshmen tea-party senator Ron Johnson also trotted out Einstein’s maxim to attack Obama’s plan, as did Georgia Republican congressman Lynn Westmoreland. And Kentucky senator Rand Paul cottoned to the phrase so much, he’s used it twice this month, to both decry Obama’s choice for a new chairman of economic advisers and to call for a no-confidence vote on Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner. House GOPers Eric Cantor and Jeb Hensarling have turned to the insanity apothegm to describe Obama’s health-care reforms and efforts to raise the U.S. debt ceiling, respectively, while Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain used it to bash Obama’s policy toward Israel.
But these Republicans were themselves guilty of a different kind of break with reality. Like so many American politicians before them, they were misattributing the “insanity” quote, which over the years has also been mistakenly credited to Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, and Chinese philosophers. These politicians might be surprised to learn the line’s true origin: Its earliest known appearance in print dates only to 1983, when prolific author and screenwriter Rita Mae Brown included it in her lesbian romance novel Sudden Death. Set in the world of women’s championship tennis, the book details a secret Sapphic affair that eventually explodes into public view. The insanity definition appears on page 68, after Susan, the novel’s sexually confused protagonist, has just slapped her female lover in the face for suggesting that past dalliances with women qualified her as a lesbian: “The trouble with Susan was that she made the same mistakes repeatedly. She’d fall in love with a woman and consume her … When she tired, usually after a year or two, she’d find another woman. Unfortunately, Susan didn’t remember what Jane Fulton once said. ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.’ ”
Brown, who now lives on a horse farm in Afton, Virginia, earned an Emmy nomination for writing I Love Liberty, a Norman Lear–produced ABC special that celebrated the 250th birthday of George Washington. To this day, she says, she carries a copy of the Constitution in her purse. “Whenever I am at an airport, if I don’t have a book to read,” she says, “I whip it out.”
This partly explains why Brown is unbothered by the Republican co-opting of her catchphrase. “Is that not the essence of free speech?” she asks, adding somewhat whimsically, “I put it out there, and there it goes!”
But Brown also doubts the insanity attack can do real harm. “I don’t think a phrase can dislodge anybody,” she says. “The Democrats will either pull it together or they won’t.”
Besides, she adds, “I was for Hillary … No offense, but men can’t admit they’re wrong.”