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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama’s Fake Hayes Quote

President Obama unjustly criticized a dead Republican president — Rutherford B. Hayes — by putting words in Hayes’ mouth that he never uttered.

Obama, speaking about his energy policies at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md., said:

Obama, March 15: 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.)

Actually, as New York Magazine‘s Daily Intel blog and others were quick to point out, Hayes never said that. In fact, Hayes was the first president to have a telephone in the White House. It was one of the earliest telephones anywhere in the nation’s capital:

White House Historical Association: The first White House telephone was installed for Rutherford B. Hayes in 1879, but it was used rarely as there were so few telephones in Washington. His telephone number was “1.”

And when the new technology was demonstrated for him for the first time in 1877, a newspaper reporter quoted him as saying, “That is wonderful.”

New York Magazine‘s Dan Amira checked the Obama quote by using the telephone (it’s still a wonderful technology) to call Nan Card, who is the curator of manuscripts at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio.

New York Daily Intel: “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.” …

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.’ “

For the record, Hayes was also the first president to use a typewriter. And he invited Thomas Edison into the White House to demonstrate the phonograph.

–Brooks Jackson