Obama’s whopper about Rutherford B. Hayes and the telephone
By Glenn Kessler,
“Of course, we’ve heard this kind of thinking before. If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society. … 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?’ That's why he's not on Mount Rushmore because he’s looking backwards. He’s not looking forwards. He’s explaining why we can't do something, instead of why we can do something.”
— President Obama, remarks on energy, Largo, Maryland, March 15, 2012
In a speech on energy Thursday, the president took aim at the “cynics and naysayers” who dismiss potential new sources of energy, such as wind and solar. Leave aside the canard about most Europeans believing the earth was flat before Columbus — that’s an elementary-school tale with little basis in fact.
What about President Hayes? Was he really so dismissive about the invention of the telephone?
Hayes, the nation’s 19th president, served only one term, 1877-1881, after a very close and disputed election that needed to be settled by an electoral commission. (He went to bed thinking he had lost to Democrat Samuel Tilden.) He was a master politician who banned liquor from the White House for political purposes (and to curb boorish behavior by members of Congress).
The quote cited by Obama 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.
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,” Hoogenboom said.
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 Telephone Comes to Washington,” by Richard T. Loomis, shows that the White House was given the number “1.”
The White House phone initially was connected to the Treasury Department. Hoogenboom, in his book, writes that Hayes’s wife Lucy requested that a quartet sing on October 26, 1877, to inaugurate the service, but the concert abruptly ended because the powerful bass voice of one singer smashed “to atoms” the “sounding board of the telephone.”
Nan Card, curator of manuscripts at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio, can pinpoint when Hayes first tried out the phone: June 1877. Hayes, it turns out, kept 126 scrapbooks of newspaper articles that featured him, and on page 82 of the 111th scrapbook was an account from the June 29 edition of the Providence Journal.
The version of events certainly is different than Obama’s telling. We reprint the whole report below because it gives a real flavor of the moment.
The President at the Telephone
About 3 o’clock the President enjoyed a new sensation. Under the direction of Mr. Fred A. Gower, managing agent of Prof. [Alexander Graham] Bell, a telephone wire was connected with the Western Union Telegraph wire, tendered for the purpose of manager Bradford, and telephone communication established with Prof. Bell at the City Hotel in this city.
The President was then invited to place one of the telephones, which by the way resembled a rather large-sized bobbin, against one ear, which he did, when Mr. Gower spoke in the other in a moderate tone of voice, saying, “Prof. Bell, I have the honor to present to you the President of the United States, who is listening at the other telephone; do you understand?”
The President listened carefully while a gradually increasing smile wreathed his lips, and wonder shone in his eyes more and more, until he took the little instrument from his ear, looked at it a moment in surprise, and remarked, “That is wonderful.”
During this time Prof. Bell said, according to Mr. Gower, who was listening at the telephone: “Mr. President, I am duly sensible of the great honor conferred upon me in this for the first time presenting the speaking telephone to the attention of the President of the United States. I am located in one of the parlors of the City Hotel, in Providence. I am speaking to you through thirteen miles of wire, without the use of any galvanic current on the line. I hope that you understand distinctly what I say, and I shall be very glad to hear something from you in reply, if you please.”
At the suggestion to him from Mr. Gower, that he should speak to Prof. Bell, the President said, “Please speak a little more slowly.” A few more messages passed, when the President again remarked, “That is wonderful,” saying he could understand some words very well, but could not catch sentences.
[Pennsylvania] Gov. [John] Hartranft also tried the wonderful little instrument, with much the same experience as the President, saying in answer to a query from Prof. Bell, “I understand you very well.”
Note that Hayes first tried the “wonderful” telephone at the end of June, and then had it installed in the White House just four months later. So, rather than “not looking forwards,” as Obama put it, Hayes quickly embraced the new technology.
In fact, he was a little too ahead of his time, because there were so few telephones installed elsewhere in the county. (The telephone list mentioned above shows only 190 subscribers in Washington two years after the telephone first came to Washington.) According to Hoogenboom, most communications from the White House continued to be done by telegraph during the rest of Hayes’s presidency.
Hoogenboom, who is an Obama supporter, added that unlike many Republicans today, Hayes was an advocate of federal action, particularly spending on education. He even wanted to use the federal budget surplus to direct more money to poor districts.
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.
Card said the Hayes presidential library has never been able to find evidence of the alleged Hayes quote. “It seems to be out there, as people say it all the time,” she sighed. (Run a Nexis search and you’ll see many examples.)
White House spokesman Jay Carney pointed to those “multiple media references,” as well as an Encyclopaedia Britannica reference and even a previous comment by President Ronald Reagan as evidence that Obama was not out of line in citing this tall tale about Hayes.
“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.
Reagan did once made a similar observation, according to Feb. 23, 1985, report by UPI reporter Helen Thomas. In this case, Reagan poked fun at his age, clearly making a joke:
Reagan recalled that President Rutherford B. Hayes once was “shown a recently invented device.”
“That's an amazing invention,” he said. “But who would ever want to use one of them?” He was talking about a telephone. I thought at the time that he might be mistaken.”
Of course, Reagan — “80 percent of our air pollution stems from hydrocarbons released by vegetation” — was widely mocked for getting his facts wrong. So we are not sure he is the best source for presidential history.
We contacted Encyclopaedia Britannica senior technology editor Rob Curley about its use of the Hayes reference, in a book titled “100 Most Influential Investors of All Time,” and he said he would recheck its sources.
The Pinocchio Test
It’s bad enough for one president to knock another one for not being on Mount Rushmore, but it’s particularly egregious to do so based on incorrect information.
We went back and forth over whether this error was worth three or four Pinocchios. We nearly decided on three Pinocchios because Obama used the phrase “reportedly” and because others have said this before him. The Encyclopaedia Britannica reference especially gave us pause. That’s a legitimate, but not infallible, source. But then we remembered it took only a phone call to a real historian to find out the truth.
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.
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