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 November 19, 2006
“If you see a turtle on a fence, he had help getting there”

"If you see a turtle sitting on a fencepost, he had help getting there” is one of Bill Clinton‘s favorite phrases. The phrase is popular in both Arkansas and Texas to indicate the help that one receives in life.

The “post turtle” saying has been cited in print since at least 1976, when it was recorded in a newspaper from East Texas.


Wikipedia: Post turtle
Post turtle is a phrase that has been used in political discussion of various countries, including the U.S. and Canada, based on an old joke. Various politicians have been referenced by the joke or used the joke, including George W Bush, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Stephen Harper.

The joke
An old rancher is talking about politics with a young man from the city. He compares a politician to a “post turtle”. The young man doesn’t understand and asks him what a post turtle is.

The old man says, “When you’re driving down a country road and you see a fence post with a turtle balanced on top, that’s a post turtle. You know he didn’t get up there by himself. He doesn’t belong there; he can’t get anything done while he’s up there; and you just want to help the poor, dumb thing down.”

Notable usage
The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton by Joe Klein quotes Clinton as saying: “If you see a turtle sitting on top of a fence post, it didn’t get there by accident.” According to Klein, this was Clinton’s way of claiming partial responsibility for “the historic prosperity and the global peace that attended his time in office”.

23 December 1976, Gladewater (TX) Mirror, “Chest hospital volunteers look back at busy year,” pg. 5, col. 2:
A turtle, sitting atop a fence post, was asked by an incredulous passerby, “How did you get up there?” The turtle replied “Well, I’ll tell you one thing, I didn’t do it all by myself.”

Google Books
A Turtle on a Fencepost:
Little Lessons of Large Importance

By Allan C. Emery
Waco, TX: Word Books
1979
Pg. 14:
He replied, “Allan, when I was a schoolboy we would occasionally see a turtle on a fencepost and when we did, we knew someone had put him there. He didn’t get there by himself. That is how I see my own life. I’m a turtle on a fencepost.”

24 October 1985, Chicago (IL) Tribune, pg. D10H:
When the author of the blockbuster book and TV mini-series “Roots” (Alex Haley—ed.) looks at the quirky photo, he’s reminded of a lesson in humility: “Any time you see a turtle on top of a fence, you know he had some help.”

2 August 1992, New York (NY) Times, “On Language” by Jack Rosenthal, pg. SM11:
To Governor Clinton, child of Hope, Ark., farm idiom comes naturally and frequently, Gwen Ifill of The Times recalls that Clinton was asked during the New Hampshire campaign if he thought somebody was deliberately planting questions about his relationship with Gennifer Flowers. “When you come across a turtle sitting on a fence post, it didn’t get there by itself,” he responded. “Someone had to put it there.”

6 November 1994, New York (NY) Times, pg. 28:
And by today, he was reviving homespun aphorisms to complain that he had not been given sufficient credit for all he had achieved. “As they say back in Arkansas, where I come from,” he (Bill Clinton—ed.) said, “if you find a turtle on a fence post, chances are it didn’t get there by accident.”

14 January 2001, New York (NY) Times, pg. WK4:
There were other Clinton-isms, too, that would come out of his mouth regularly, confounding his speechwriting staff. “This dog won’t hunt.” “Like a turtle on a fence post.” “As tight as a tick.”

Rice University (2005?)
“While a great deal has been accomplished in Finance and Administration while I have been at Rice, I have actually done almost none of it,” Currie said.  “I have been able to assemble an extraordinary team and have had outstanding leadership in the academic administration and the Board of Trustees. There is an old East Texas saying, ‘If you find a turtle on a fence post, you know that it had some help getting there.’”

Google Books
Turtle on a Fence Post:
Wisdom Graduates Need to Make It in the Real World

By Jim Pratt and Jane Pratt
Victoria, BC: Agio Publishing House
2009
Pg. 91:
Think like a turtle on a fence post
When you reach a goal, always remember to think of yourself as a turtle sitting on top of a fence post. Understand that you did not get there by yourself. Someone had to help you. Make sure you do something to reward others for helping you.

Posted by Barry Popik
Texas (Lone Star State Dictionary) • Sunday, November 19, 2006 • Permalink