When President Obama’s speechwriter chose to include some disparaging comments about former Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes in the president’s Prince George’s Community College talk last week, he assumed few would notice or care. After all, Obama seems to find it irresistible to criticize his Republican predecessors, while often lauding past Democrats such as Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Last week should have been no different.
Obama has often targeted Republicans for their opposition to his policies. Speaking about his energy policies at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Maryland last Thursday, Obama said:
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.)
The problem, of course, is that Hayes never said this. A little research on the part of Obama’s speechwriter would have revealed that Hayes was in fact the first president in American history to make use of the telephone while in the White House.
In response, Nan Card, a curator at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio, cited a newspaper article from June 29, 1877, which described Hayes’ first experience with the telephone. Hayes said, “That is wonderful,” after using the telephone for the first time.
Perhaps just as importantly, however, is that even if Hayes had said it, “green” boondoggles and the telephone are hardly comparable. Prior to the invention of the device, there was no readily available, cheaper, more reliable way to communicate by voice across many miles. By contrast, there are today abundant, domestic sources of energy – oil and natural gas, to name just two - whose potential is not being used to its fullest extent. And these sources create jobs.
What’s more, Obama’s attack on Hayes offers a salutary effect to compare Obama and Hayes. During the American Civil War, Hayes left his successful political and law careers behind and volunteered for military service. He reached the rank of Major General in the Union Army and was wounded five times during combat. He was highly regarded for his bravery and leadership. After the Civil War, he served in Congress, was governor of Ohio for three terms and was president during one of the most politically taxing times in our nation’s history. After serving only one term as president and refusing reelection – a promise he kept – he retired from political life but stayed active in social and education reforms.
According to our current president, Hayes was not “forward-thinking enough” and wholly unfitting for Mt. Rushmore. The characterization is based on a lie and biased historical review. We should expect more from “the smartest guy ever to become president,” not to leave himself vulnerable to comparison with a predecessor he could never equal.