Obama Knocks Rutherford B. Hayes

One comment that President Obama made today during a speech on energy in Maryland this morning seems to have gotten more attention than anything else, but perhaps that’s because it concerned a man who hasn’t been President for 131 years:

President Obama took aim Thursday at one of his Republican predecessors: Rutherford B. Hayes.

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. “The point is there will always be cynics and naysayers.”

Interestingly enough, though, it was during Hayes’s Administration that the first White House telephone was installed, by Alexander Graham Bell himself. Of course, history most remembers Hayes as the winner of the disputed Election of 1876 which Republicans won by agreeing to withdraw all Federal troops from the South, thus ending Reconstruction, in exchange for the disputed electoral votes of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana.

Update: At least one historian disputes the quote that was the basis of Obama’s line:

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.”

So Hayes is apparently vindicated. Except for that whole election thing.

Photo via Politico

FILED UNDER: US Politics, , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Rob in CT says:

    And of course, at the time the GOP was generally the more forward-looking (dare I say progressive) party, and the Dems were all about pining for the past. Hence the “Redeemers.”

  2. Herb says:

    Of course, history most remembers Hayes as the winner of the disputed Election of 1876

    That and for squelching the use of “Rutherford” as a baby name.

  3. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Hell, that’s nothing. In 120 years there will be liberal idiots on university campuses and Democrat politicos knocking George W. Bush for something or another. Seriously.

    As far as new sources of energy go, I agree 100% with Obama. We do in fact need alternative energy sources on a grand scale.

    Let’s go nuclear. Let’s build a couple of dozen brand-new, high-tech nuclear reactors throughout the country. Nuclear energy is safe, clean and effective. France loves it. It greatly would reduce our dependency on foreign oil and help dissipate the attendant wealth transfer effect to hostile governments in a hostile region. It would create and then maintain vast quantities of high-paying jobs. It’s a no brainer.

    Let’s also expand our natural gas capabilities. We’re sitting on a treasure trove. Let’s build a dozen or so brand-new LNG terminals at major ports throughout the country. Let’s expand the natural gas pipeline system. Natural gas burns clean. It’s cheap. It’s a great alternative to oil in many different contexts, especially in connection with home heating.

    Let’s also expand our hydroelectric capabilities. Let’s dam up a number of additional rivers. You can’t get cleaner and more renewable than hydroelectric power. It’s amazingly effective. Have you ever been to Las Vegas? Keep in mind that’s in the middle of the high desert. There’s the added benefit of the fact that when you build dams you create huge numbers of high-paying construction and transporation jobs. Those two sectors are dying on the vine. Let’s get them back on track.

    Nuclear energy, hydroelectric power and natural gas production and distribution. Let’s truly go green.

  4. @Tsar Nicholas:

    Let’s see —

    1. Cutting revenues while massively increasing both discretionary and entitlement spending
    2. Fighting two wars without paying for them
    3. Starting one of those wars based on faulty intelligence and without an adequate plan for how to deal with the aftermath of the collapse of the central government
    4. Torture, indefinite detention, extraordinary rendition, and warrentless electronic surveillance

    There will be PLENTY for future historians to knock George W. Bush for.

  5. Rob in CT says:

    I’m for nuke & hydro, though let’s not pretend there aren’t serious problems with nuke waste. And nuclear plants need to be situated as carefully as possible. But yes, more nuclear please.

    Hydro – sure. Sorry, fish (though reasonable accomodations can be made). Do we have a lot of suitable sites that have been left alone because of concern for salmon and whatnot?

    Nat. Gas: happening. Not all roses, but better than oil. Bring it, with appropriate safeguards, which include actually monitoring what the drillers are using, storing, and disposing of. Proper wastewater containment, treatment, and release.

    Solar keeps improving too. More solar, particularly in sunny regions.

    Wind strikes me as the weakest of them all, except in very particular locations.

  6. The Florida Masochist says:

    @Herb: Rutherford has done all right as a last name. Johnny Rutherford was a multiple times Indy 500 winner and there are least two other Rutherfords with Wikipedia articles. One of who I knew, Johnny Rutherford who pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers. I’m an old-time baseball nut.

  7. sam says:

    A little OT, but …

    One day, when I was working in downtown Boston, I took a walk at lunch time and wandered over to the neighborhood of the old opera house, if you know where that is. I strolled up this side street past this old, somewhat rundown building, and I noticed a tarnished plaque in the wall. When I looked closer, I saw that it said (quoting from memory), “On this spot in [some year] Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.”

    Part of what I love about New England: History is always at hand.

  8. Hey Norm says:

    Wasn’t there just a post on this blog last week about Romney not being held responsible because he didn’t know that Reagan had absolutely nothing to do with freeing the Iranian hostages???
    Double-standard much?


    “…Nuclear energy is safe, clean and effective. France loves it…”

    The French Nukular system is heavily subsidized by the Government….so I can only assume that Tsar is all for nationalizing the US Electrical Energy Industry.
    I’m all for Nukular Power…assuming we solve the known issues that we have for years refused to solve. People like Tsar are all for the bumper stickers…Drill Baby Drill…Go Nukular…Damn up the Rivers. Unfortunately people like Tsar don’t want to ever have to deal with the real-world issues they cause. Just build the damn Keystone Pipeline…never mind the damage it could inflict. Frack away…and don’t wory about poisoning the groundwater.

  9. Hey Norm says:

    @ Rob…
    Our office, an 1800’s manufacturing building, uses a combination of solar and hydro to produce about 30% of our power used.
    Hydro is cool…but on small scales it’s more cool than anything.
    And there are drawbacks…like on a hot summer day when a fish dies in the raceway.

  10. Rob in CT says:

    Re: the update: I believe it. There are lots of quotes that you learn about and, if you investigate them, you discover the people who are purported to have said those things didn’t. Or at least you can’t find proof that they did.

    Given the general stance of the Republican party in the 19th century (Progress!), it seems out of character.

    Obama is likely just recounting a myth. Fail.

  11. ernieyeball says:

    @Hey Norm: Frack away…and don’t wory about poisoning the groundwater.

    For What it’s Worth:


  12. @Rob in CT:

    The most famous misattributed quote that comes to mind is “I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” It’s attributed to Voltaire, but he didn’t say it.

  13. Hey Norm says:

    @ ernieeyeball…
    It wasn’t the fracking…it was the cement?
    But the cement wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for fracking.
    I don’t even care about fracking…as long as groundwater concerns are addressed.
    History tells us that it won’t be.
    And those damaged will not be made whole by those doing the damage. This isn’t partidsan. It’s history.

  14. ernieyeball says:

    @ Hay Norb:
    “And those damaged will not be made whole by those doing the damage.”

    Made whole?
    No. Certainly not the families of Aaron Burkeen, Adam Weise, Jason Anderson, Karl Kleppinger Jr., Dewey Revette, Shane Roshto, Donald Clark, Stephen Curtis, Blair Manuel, Gordon Jones and Roy Kemp.
    May they rest in peace.
    However recently announced settlements with BP “will provide much needed relief to plaintiffs who suffered economic losses, as well those with medical claims.”
    “The settlements include claims that were not previously paid by the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, the organization set up by BP to administer the $20 billion claims fund set up in 2010. These include claims for loss of use and enjoyment of water front property and medical claims…The medical claims settlement not only compensates for injuries, but also sets forth a medical consultation program, which provides that the injured are seen by healthcare professionals for the next 21 years. The settlement will also fund an outreach program, which will promote physical, mental, and behavioral health in areas affected by the oil spill.”
    When you say “History tells us that it won’t be.”
    Are you asserting that no one has ever before been compensated for damages due to the negligence of others?

  15. bandit says:

    Obama reaches deeper and deeper to make excuses for his incompetence.

  16. superdestroyer says:

    @Hey Norm:

    I guess people like Hey Norm believe that a country can have a modern, post-industrial infrastructure with no emission and no generation of electric.

    When everything is compared to a magic wand, everything else looks bad.

    But then again, progressives refuse to understand that there are tradeoffes in life and everything should just magically happen.

  17. Rob in CT says:

    @Doug Mataconis:


    Aw, man, that sucks. But that is indeed exactly the sort of thing I was thinking of.


    I think he’s referring to the inadequacy of previous compensation – a general sense that it was insufficient. A lot of times, in my experience, this ends up happening b/c the polluter is out of business (fairly common when you have a slow seepage situation gets noticed decades later). Other times, there’s a bunch of stonewalling and then a grudging payout. BP didn’t really have a chance of stonewalling, pretending it wasn’t them, etc. I’ve seen lots of that. That’s not to say that every claim for compensation is meritorious, or that no polluter has ever stepped up to the plate and addressed the problem properly (it happens, but it’s rare, for a variety of reasons).

    I’ve seen enough via my job to conclude that unless people are forced to be careful, and forced to clean up their messes, most won’t. I guess we’ll see. Fracking proceeds apace. We will see if, years or decades hence, we end up with a bunch of contaminated groundwater (and, if we do, how the polluters respond). My guess, based on 13 years of looking at long-tail environmental claims, is that we’ll see some contamination claims and the polluters will deny, stonewall, claim poverty, and finally pay something, with the taxpayers kicking in the rest.


    He wasn’t making excuses for anything, you dolt. He was making a case for public investment in alternative energy sources. He did this by using a mis-attributied quote, which is clumsy, though common.

    Damn, Voltaire didn’t say that? That’s such a badass quote.

  18. Rob in CT says:


    Oh, there are always tradeoffs.

    In the end, society will pay. The question is who, exactly? I prefer that the industry and its customers (even if that means most of the country) pays higher up-front/at the pump prices for pollution prevention than have a bunch of people get rich by trashing the place and then sticking the rest of us with the bill.

    There is no perfect power source. However, negative externalities are real. Coal is cheap, right? Except of course the cost of coal doesn’t incorporate the negative environmental impacts (including direct human health impacts, not just the spotted owl or whatever). So it’s not really cheap. A portion of the cost is hidden. So we use lots of coal and turn our noses up at more expensive forms of energy production…

    Natural Gas is fine. But the wastewater is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. I’ve seen this sh*t too many times.

  19. Neo says:

    I also am insulted and dismayed by Obama’s continuous snarky, condescending and dismissive tone in all of his speeches.

    In today’s speech, Obama seems to be screaming for all the distain normally set aside for Dan Quayle.

  20. matt says:

    @Rob in CT: LFTR tech .. Look it up.

  21. superdestroyer says:

    @Rob in CT:

    But you are not willing to make a trade off. Manhattan, Boston, DC cannot exist with the generation of electricity in large plants. The idea that Manhattan could exist using wind mills in the midwest is laughable.

    But the elite decision makers in NYC believe that the U.S. can do without nuclear power plants, coal fired plants, hydro-electric, and natural gas exploration but that Manhattan will not be affect shows how short sighted and unrealistic they are.

    It is the same as the people who believe that if the marginal tax rates were raised to 80% that Manhattan, Boston, or DC would not be affected. How do you have expensive night clubs, restaurants, and theaters without high paid people as customers.

  22. Hey Norm says:

    Here’s what I typed:

    “…I’m all for Nukular Power…assuming we solve the known issues that we have for years refused to solve…”

    “…I don’t even care about fracking…as long as groundwater concerns are addressed…”

    Here’s how SD distorts that:

    “…I guess people like Hey Norm believe that a country can have a modern, post-industrial infrastructure with no emission and no generation of electric…”

    And that is why we can’t solve anything in this country. Prime example…a Republican designed free-market health care system becomes Socialism with Death Panels.
    People like SD want to give away the farm to folks like BP and Enron and Coal companies with no questions asked. It’s how you end up with the Mineral Management Services Bureau. It’s how you end up with trillions of dollars in subsidization for the fossil fuel sector.
    Our Constitution gives people like SD the right to free-speech. I just don’t know why we still bother listening.

  23. Hey Norm says:

    “…The idea that Manhattan could exist using wind mills in the midwest is laughable…”

    No one said that.

    “…But the elite decision makers in NYC believe that the U.S. can do without nuclear power plants, coal fired plants, hydro-electric, and natural gas exploration…”

    No one said that.

    “…same as the people who believe that if the marginal tax rates were raised to 80%…”

    No one said that.
    In-f’ing-credible. An entire rant based on your own fantasies.

  24. Rob in CT says:

    Yes, I am willing to make a tradeoff. I never said – and certainly do not believe – that wind and solar will power New York City. That’s a strawman of your own construction.

    Solar in places it makes the most sense (the Southwest for large solar farms, rooftop solar elsewhere). Unless significant advances are made in storage technology, this will not provide the best source of baseload power, however. Nukes, Hydro and Nat. Gas will have to do that.

    Hydro where it makes sense. Wind where it makes sense. Natural Gas, Nuclear and for some time yet, Coal elsewhere.

    But the elite decision makers in NYC believe that the U.S. can do without nuclear power plants, coal fired plants, hydro-electric, and natural gas exploration

    Bullshit. Again with the strawman.

    It is the same as the people who believe that if the marginal tax rates were raised to 80% that Manhattan, Boston, or DC would not be affected

    Oh, look, more straw. You live in a country where one Party is arguing for a return to Clinton-era marginal rates (39.6% top rate, IIRC). The other has apparently never met a (high-end) tax cut it doesn’t like.

    Tell me, Supe, what tradeoffs are you willing to make? What’s your stance on the health issues tied to Coal power plant emissions? What do you think should be done to safeguard groundwater from wastewater used in fracking?

    You try to pose as the serious one, but you’re not.


    Liquid Thorium Reactors. Sounds good, though it also sounds like the technology is still being developed. I’d be fine with funnelling some DOE money in that direction to speed up the R&D.

    Based on what I found via google, it seems that China is working on LFTRs (the only country doing so, apparently?). Given that, it seems that this tech is indeed still in the R&D stage. There is not LFT reactor anywhere in the world at this time, so it’s a bit hard to say how the real thing will do (again, it sounds very good).

    Anyway, I’m in favor of funding LFTR R&D here. Nuclear power with less waste sounds great (indeed, it sounds like the Holy Grail of energy). Bring it on.

  25. Rob in CT says:

    The waste difference between LFTR and what we have today, apparently, is that LFTR waste will only be dangerously radioactive for ~300 years (as opposed to thousands of years). You obviously will still have to be careful with the waste, but that’s manageable.

    Assuming this is true, LFTR sounds really great. I get a little bit of a utopian vibe when I read the internet sites pushing it, which makes me suspicious of course, but I don’t see why it’s not at least worth a pilot program.

  26. superdestroyer says:

    @Hey Norm:

    The number of people calling for marginal taxes rates above 70% is huge. http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/taxing-job-creators/

    Also, I know how progressives work. They will keep claiming that they will support nuclear, hydro-electric, or coal is it can be done safely but will always find a worst case scenario that will prevent any plant or dam from ever being built.

    It is like President Obama saying that he needs more time to approve pipelines when everyone knows that the pipeline will never be built and there is no way for any pipeline company to make all of the activist happy.

    That is why progressives believe in magic wands. Because anything short of a magic wand will be considered to risky, dangerous, or harmful to actually ever be done.

    What progressives fail to understand is that the worst thing you can do for anyone is make them poor. but is there is no construction, no energy production, then people will be poor.

  27. matt says:

    @Rob in CT: LFTRs are also known as molten salt reactors. The US government began development on a version to power an aircraft back in the late 1940s. THis was the reactor that was going to power the Convair X-6 that was cancelled in the early 60s.

    The Oak Ridge National Laboratory ran an early version of a LFTR that went critical in 1965 and operated till 1969. This test reactor was wildly successfull and confirmed many important elements of the LFTR design. Research was continued till around 1976. It seems that the lack of strong advocates for MSR and LFTR tech left it vulnerable to the conventional energy lobbyists of the time. No full scale commercial plant was ever actually made due to a lack of interest. The conventional wisdom of coal oil and conventional nuclear plants were producing power fine so why take a chance on a relatively unproven technology.

    Aside from China’s thorium MSR project there’s also the Fuji MSR project. Flibe energy is an actual company that was founded last year with the intent to develop 20-50 MW LFTR designs to power military bases.

    Thorium Energy Generation Pty. Limited (TEG) has been laying the groundwork for a 60MW pilot plant in Prague.

    The weinberg foundation in England was founded last year with the intent to promote and develop LFTRs.

  28. matt says:

    The technology to do LFTRs existed +50 years ago it was just the willpower that was lacking.

  29. grumpy realist says:

    I’m for nuclear–provided that all the workers building it and the employees of the company running it (plus CEO) live within 10 miles of the plant. Either that, or if there’s an “accident” which turns out to be due to faulty design/faulty building/faulty running we track these people down and go medieval on their asses. Unless people have their own skin in the game, there will always be a temptation to cut corners….

    (Which is also why I’m in favor of extremely serious charges if anyone ever provides counterfeit parts to a military project.)

  30. superdestroyer says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Why not apply the same logic to politicians who send their children to private schools while giving the teachers unions whatever they want. why trust politicians to do what is right for education when they have no “skin in the game.”

    I would also hold judges, parole boards, and probation officers to the same standard. If a Parolee commits a crime, the system that put the parolee on the street needs to liable for the harm.