President Obama got a laugh out of a Maryland audience when he mocked the Republican Party in a speech, comparing their skepticism of alternative energy to the “Flat Earth Society” in Christopher Columbus’ day and President Rutherford B. Hayes’ apparent dismissal of the telephone. But while Obama thinks the GOP is in need of a science lesson, he may need to bone up on history himself.
President Obama — in an attempt at historical analysis — compared the GOP’s skepticism toward alternative energy to President Rutherford B. Hayes’s supposed reaction to the telephone:
It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?
That’s why he’s not on Mount Rushmore. He’s explaining why we can’t do something instead of why we can do something.
And this is why Obama’s not a historian. Talking Points Memo reports:
Nan Card, curator of manuscripts at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Ohio, told TPM that the nation’s 19th president was being unfairly tagged as a Luddite.
He really was the opposite. He had the first telephone in the White House. He also had the first typewriter in the White House. Thomas Edison came to the White House as well and displayed the phonograph. Photographing people who came to the White House and visited at dinners and receptions was also very important to him.
While often cited, Card said Obama’s cited quote had never been confirmed by contemporary sources and is likely apocryphal. A contemporary newspaper account of his first experience with telephone in 1877 from the Providence Journal records a smiling Hayes repeatedly responding to the voice on the other line with the phrase, “that is wonderful.” You can read the full story here.
He was pretty technology-oriented for the time. Between the telephone, the telegraph, the phonograph and photography, I think he was pretty much on the cutting edge.
For those who are trying to push the meme that Republicans are in a “war against women,” Hayes signed a bill that, for the first time, allowed women attorneys to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court.
As for why he’s not on Mt. Rushmore, Card noted that popular history tends to favor wartime presidents in the long run.
Obama’s invocation of the “flat earth” theory in the context of Christopher Columbus’ journey across the ocean also contained some dubious (if incredibly widespread) history.
If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society. They would not have believed that the world was round.
In fact, historians have long contended that the notion Europeans widely believed the Earth was flat, let alone 15th century Spanish scholars, is a myth developed centuries later.
There never was a period of “flat earth darkness” among scholars (regardless of how many uneducated people may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology. Ferdinand and Isabella did refer Columbus’s plans to a royal commission headed by Hernando de Talavera, Isabella’s confessor and, following defeat of the Moors, Archbishop of Granada. This commission, composed of both clerical and lay advisers, did meet, at Salamanca among other places. They did pose some sharp intellectual objections to Columbus, but all assumed the earth’s roundness. As a major critique, they argued that Columbus could not reach the Indies in his own allotted time, because the earth’s circumference was too great. Moreover, his critics were entirely right. Columbus had “cooked” his figures to favor a much smaller earth, and an attainable Indies. Needless to say, he did not and could not reach Asia, and Native Americans are still called Indians as a legacy of his error.
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. 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 seances.”
(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.)
A couple of months later, the second paragraph of Obama’s inaugural address contained another historical mistake.
Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath.
(Not quite. While Obama is the 44th president, 43 men have taken the oath. Grover Cleveland, because his terms were not contiguous, is counted as both the 22nd and the 24th chief executive. Two presidents, but only one American.)
Asked during his first few months to explain his rationale for banning waterboarding and releasing the previous administration’s “torture memos,” Obama gave this answer:
I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, ‘We don’t torture,’ when . . . all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat. . . . Churchill understood, you start taking shortcuts, over time, that corrodes what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.
(Except that it was blogger Andrew Sullivan who said those things, not Winston Churchill. The “article” Obama was reading was, let’s just say, under-reported. The British did torture German prisoners during World War II. Not to mention the 16 Nazis hunted down by the British and assassinated after the war while Churchill was prime minister.)
Barack Hussein Obama could learn from his Republican predecessor, Rutherford B. Hayes. In his inaugural address, Hayes famously said,
He serves his party best who serves the country best.
Barack Hussein Obama could also learn from the 18th century Tory, Dr. Samuel Johnson.
Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.