For a guy touted as an “intellectual,” President Obama does get a lot of history wrong. In a speech attacking Republicans as “flat-earthers” Obama asserted: “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.” The Post’s Glenn Kessler easily nails him with four Pinocchios for his slur on Hayes:
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.” . . .
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. . . .
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.”
The incident is illustrative of a couple of issues with Obama. First, his grandiose pretensions make him desperate to associate himself with historical giants. (He’s in the top four presidents, don’t you know?) In the campaign he talked about sitting down with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, arguing in a fractured historical accounting that Franklin Roosevelt, for example, had sat down with our enemies. (No, FDR never sat down to chat with Adolf Hitler.) When he strains to make analogies that aren’t all that apt, he tends to trounce over inconvenient facts.
Second, the purpose of the Hayes slam was to launch an ad hominem attack on his political opponents, namely that they don’t “get” clean energy. But in fact, the entire green energy revolution turned out to be a bust and mostly a racket for rewarding his Democratic supporters and donors. In this case it’s actually the president who is seemingly blind to the revolution in shale technology and the potential for real energy independence. Rather than argue the merits of his policies (Does Obamacare slow job growth? Are “green jobs” a mirage?) he prefers snarky throw-away lines (“flat-earthers”) that make mincemeat of history.
The 2012 general election will be interesting for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is whether the media (unlike 2008) holds Obama’s feet to the fire for the gaffes, made-up history and false analogies. In 2008 Obama had a very favorable media environment that allowed him to bend and stretch the truth nearly at will; He may find the press less protective this time around.