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.
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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.
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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.