Obama Flubs U.S. History -- Again

Obama Flubs U.S. History -- Again

By Carl M. Cannon - March 16, 2012

He wasn't born in Kenya, and he attended some of this country's finest schools, but as he demonstrated anew on Thursday, Barack Obama shares with his fellow Americans one of their most dubious national traits: a nonchalant disregard for historical accuracy.

In an age when Twitter and other social media can propagate with distressing efficiency the fake Lincoln quote, the false Twain quip, the invented Ben Franklin advice, Obama is a president for our times.

Speaking yesterday about energy, the president found it necessary to casually slander Rutherford B. Hayes. In Obama’s telling, Hayes was a Luddite who, when confronted with the invention of the telephone, wondered who would ever want to use one.

“That’s why he’s not on Mount Rushmore,” Obama intoned. “He’s explaining why we can’t do something instead of why we can do something.”

It’s hard to know where to begin unraveling this, but a good place to start is the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, where resident scholar Nan Card confirmed to any journalist who bothered calling her -- which is more than you can say for the White House speechwriting crew -- that Hayes never said anything of the kind about the telephone, or any other invention.

According to contemporaneous accounts, what Hayes really said when he first used the phone was, “That is wonderful.”

In fact, Hayes installed the first telephone in the White House, along with the first typewriter, and invited Thomas Edison in for a visit to show off the phonograph -- and was no one’s idea of a technophobe. “He really was the opposite,” Card told Benjy Sarlin of Talking Points Memo. “Between the telephone, the telegraph, the phonograph, and photography, I think he was pretty much on the cutting edge.”

This is not first time Obama and his communications team have fallen for a quote they apparently ripped from the Internet.

In the waning days of his 2008 campaign, then-Sen. Obama criticized Republicans with this statement: “Abraham Lincoln once said to one of his opponents, ‘If you stop telling lies about me, I’ll start telling truth about you.’ ”

(If that quote doesn’t sound like Lincoln, that’s because it wasn’t. Adlai Stevenson, another Illinois Democrat, was fond of this line. So was William Randolph Hearst, who used it when he ran for governor of New York in 1906, although Sen. Chauncey Depew, another New Yorker, employed it back in the 19th Century.)

Although tradition holds that a president’s words are his own, some of this stuff comes from careless staff work, and some comes when he’s just winging it. Given the demands of modern presidential politicking, no one is going to be perfect. But that doesn’t explain why, as president, Obama keeps discussing the “Intercontinental Railroad,” supposedly built in the United States in the 19th Century. (It was called the Transcontinental Railroad, and crossed no oceans.)

In his very first news conference as president-elect, Obama was asked if he’d spoken with any former presidents in preparation for taking office. He replied that he’d talked with all the ex-presidents “that are living,” adding with a smile, “I didn’t want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about doing any séances.”

(Besides being mean-spirited -- and Obama quickly phoned Mrs. Reagan to apologize -- this was inaccurate: Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer; she didn’t converse with the dead.)

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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