Obama Owes Rutherford B. Hayes an Apology

At a campaign stop in Largo, Maryland yesterday, President Obama delivered a set of remarks in which he attempted to exculpate himself from skyrocketing fuel prices. And embedded within his speech was a typically partisan attack on Republicans (bolded below), which received special attention on the Drudge Report.

Lately, we’ve heard a lot of professional politicians, a lot of the folks who are running for a certain office — (laughter) — who shall go unnamed — (laughter) — they’ve been talking down new sources of energy. They dismiss wind power. They dismiss solar power. They make jokes about biofuels. They were against raising fuel standards. I guess they like gas-guzzlers. They think that’s good for our future. We’re trying to move towards the future; they want to be stuck in the past.

We’ve heard this kind of thinking before. Let me tell you something. If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail — (laughter) — they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society. (Laughter.) They would not have believed that the world was round….

There have always been folks like that. There always have been folks who are the naysayers and don’t believe in the future, and don’t believe in trying to do things differently. 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?” (Laughter.) That’s why he’s not on Mt. Rushmore — (laughter and applause) — because he’s looking backwards. He’s not looking forwards. (Applause.) He’s explaining why we can’t do something, instead of why we can do something. 

No Obama speech is complete without a derisive partisan attack, but neither is it complete without a hallmark inaccuracy or two. In this case, the President got his facts about our nineteenth President all wrong, and has earned himself a four Pinocchios rating at the WaPo’s Fact Checker blog. Glenn Kessler explains:

According to Ari Hoogenboom, who wrote the definite biography, “Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President,” Hayes entertained Thomas A. Edison at the White House. Edison demonstrated the phonograph for the president. “He was hardly hostile to new inventions,” Higgenboom said.

Moreover, documentation from the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center shows that President Hayes first tried out the telephone in June of 1877, when Alexander Graham Bell arranged for a demonstration. Hayes was so astounded by the telephone that he installed the very first White House telephone just four months later. Kessler writes that “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,’” indicating that the White House telephone was probably the first in the nation’s capital.

Kessler concludes:

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.