Saturday, March 17, 2012

Rutherford B. Hayes' Telephone: True Enough For Government Work

The WaPo's Fact Checker column spanked President Obama 1870s-style over his remarks at that press event in Largo, Maryland, on Thursday. It gave him four Pinocchios for using the tired, old, invented quote about Rutherford B. Hayes and the telephone.

Obama’s whopper about Rutherford B. Hayes and the telephone:

The quote cited by Obama ["One of my predecessors, Rutherford B. Hayes, reportedly said about the telephone, 'It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?'"] does exist on the Internet, but we would expect the White House staff to do better research than that. (This line was in the president’s prepared text, so it was not ad-libbed.) But the trouble is, historians say that there is no evidence Hayes ever said this. Not only that, contrary to Obama’s jab, Hayes was interested in new technology.

-- snip --

Hayes, in fact, was such a technology buff that he installed the first telephone in the White House. A list of telephone subscribers published in the article “The Telephones Comes to Washington,” by Richard T. Loomis, shows that the White House was given the number “1.”

-- snip --

Besides historians, Obama’s staff also could have checked with the White House Historical Association, which recounts Hayes’s interest in the telephone in a classroom lesson for children in grades 4-8.

-- snip --

Our final ruling was swayed in the end by this: The president in particular has a responsibility to get historical facts right, and in this case he got them completely backwards. Obama mocked Hayes for “looking backwards ... not looking forwards.” In reality, Hayes embraced the new technology. He should be an Obama hero, not a skunk.
Hayes is dead and buried, but he deserves an apology.

Inevitably, the White House spokesman tried to justify this speech writing malpractice. Jay Carney pointed out that the old chestnut about Hayes can be found in “multiple media references,” as if that's what really matters.

“I’m not arguing that this is not in dispute, but the quote is widely cited,” Carney said. He added that Obama was using the anecdote in service of a broader point. 

In Washington, Carney seems to be saying, a falsehood becomes true enough for government work if it advances a political narrative. 

I'll add this tidbit about Hayes. As a successful lawyer in Ohio - which was a slave state - he  joined the Unionist cause out of his desire to abolish slavery. When the Civil War began, he became an officer in the 23rd Ohio Infantry and was repeatedly wounded while leading troops in battle. 

When, in 1864, he was nominated to run for Congress from Ohio, he refused to campaign for office because he was already engaged in another kind of campaign against the Confederate Army in the Shenandoah Valley. He was elected anyway., and took his seat in Washington after the war was over.


Diplopundit said...

And we remember him by putting up a BP station (and a plaque) on the site of his birthplace:

TSB said...

We have some big gaps in Presidential remembrance. James Madison's home - including the room in which he literally drafted the Constitution - is only now getting the full historical treatment.

Interesting about Hayes and Paraguay. A town, a province, a museum, a postage stamp, and a national holiday in his honor!

Anonymous said...

And how can anyone stay awake while Obama reads all those phony reminiscenses? Ohio is the only state with 2 teams still in the NCAA tournament. GO Buckeyes! gwb

Anonymous said...

A Norwegian's view of President Obama's diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan through 2010. An interesting inside view from Kai Eide: UN Representative to Afghanistan. I'm starting to think maybe Holbrooke was just one of a team of bullies fighting among themselves. gwb

DiploMad said...

So if media references are the standard, would it be OK to call Obama a Kenyan because there many media stories questioning his birth certificate?

TSB said...


Thanks for your comment. That is an excellent point; no double standards, please.

BTW, I saw the WaPo did another fact-checker deconstruction on Obama today, this time regarding the creative misremembering of his mother's medical insurance problems. I'm getting strange new respect for that paper.

Anonymous said...

TSB: Reading "The Operators" about Gen. McChrystal's inner circle in Afghanistan is really entertaining. After 6 "studies" of the situation Obama decides to meet for the 2nd time with McCrystal after it is leaked to the press that they have only spoken once. This, naturally leads to "full evaluation" #7, biweekly conversations and McChrystal is fired. The whole Dept. of State role in the Afghan elections is hilarious from start to finish. Author puts you in the shoes of all the players. gwb

Anonymous said...

TSB: I didn't watch the video but the summary below it is great!

"Hypocrite Heaven" might be a good title. gwb

TSB said...

I agree. The summary was so good that watching the video would only spoil the effect.