President Obama is receiving a fair amount of amused attention for lobbing a seemingly random dig at Rutherford B. Hayes on Thursday, but maybe Hayes can thank Obama, because America is sure paying a lot more attention than usual to our 19th president. It all started when Obama, while talking about developing new sources of energy in Maryland Thursday, said:
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."
Just after Obama spoke, if you listened very carefully, you heard the furious clacking of hundreds of political reporters typing "Rutherford B. Hayes" into Wikipedia. So what have we collectively learned (or remembered) since Hayes became the most trendy 19th century Republican president of the week? So much:
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- Most importantly, Dan Amira at New York Magazine reveals that Obama is actually spreading slander about his predecessor. Though it's widely repeated, Hayes never actually gave that quote, Nan Card, the Curator of Manuscripts at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center tells Amira. "But people just keep repeating it and repeating it, so it's out there," she tells him. Myth Busters: Long-dead presidents edition!*
- Meanwhile, historian Warren Bingham notes helpfully on Twitter, "His wife wouldn't serve alcohol in [the White House]; she was known as 'Lemonade Lucy.'"
- We've also learned that Obama took a libelous dig at a president with whom he shares another unique bond. Author John Bartlett points out that before Obama, Hayes was the most recent Harvard Law graduate to serve as president.
Keep your eye on Twitter, (where he is a trending topic. What a world!) and you're bound to learn much more. We have to imagine no one came to work today thinking they'd find out this much about good old Hayes, but here we are.
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*Update: Atlantic contributor Yoni Appelbaum has a great theory. While the Hayes library can't figure out where this rumor got started, Appelbaum notes that it was popularized by President Reagan, who repeated the same anecdote Obama told Thursday in speech for the National Technology Awards in 1985. "In the years that followed, the line was widely cited," Appelbaum tells us, "although rarely attributed. So where did Obama get the line? There's no way to know for certain. But one of the executives in the room back in 1985 was Steve Jobs, and the entire scene is recounted in Walter Isaacson's recent biography. It's a safe bet that someone in the White House read the book." The learning just continues, folks!