RutherfordGate: Historian Responds to President Obama’s Hayes Slur

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Rutherford B. Hayes: Very much pro-phone. Photo: Matthew Brady/Library of Congress

It's not unusual for President Obama to criticize his Republican predecessors from time to time, but this morning, he targeted his scorn not at George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan, but ... Rutherford B. Hayes. As Politico reported:

Speaking about the need to develop new sources of American energy in Largo, Md., Obama used our 19th president as a failure of forward-thinking leadership.

"One of my predecessors, President Rutherford B. Hayes, reportedly said about the telephone: 'It’s a great invention but who would ever want to use one?'" Obama said. "That's why he's not on Mt. Rushmore."

"He's looking backwards, he's not looking forward. He's explaining why we can't do something instead of why we can do something," Obama said. 

Burn. 

We thought it was a bit unsporting of Obama to attack President Hayes, who is quite unable to respond. So we called up the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio, where Nan Card, the curator of manuscripts, was plenty willing to correct Obama's ignorance of White House history. Just as soon as she finished chuckling. 

"I've heard that before, and no one ever knows where it came from," Card said of Hayes's alleged phone remark, "but people just keep repeating it and repeating it, so it's out there." 

Wait, so Hayes didn't even say the quote that Obama is mocking him for? "No, no," Card confirmed.

She then read aloud a newspaper article from June 29, 1877, which describes Hayes's delight upon first experiencing the magic of the telephone. The Providence Journal story reported that as Hayes listened on the phone, "a gradually increasing smile wreathe[d] his lips and wonder shone in his eyes more and more.” Hayes took the phone from his ear, "looked at it a moment in surprise and remarked, 'That is wonderful.'"

In fact, Card noted, Hayes was not only the first president to have a telephone in the White House, but he was also the first to use the typewriter, and he had Thomas Edison come to the White House to demonstrate the phonograph. "So I think he was pretty much cutting edge," Card insisted, "maybe just the opposite of what President Obama had to say there."