President Obama - Foggy on Hayes

ABC News

While excoriating his Republican rivals for not having sufficient faith in alternative energy earlier today, President Obama threw a historically inaccurate elbow at a presidential predecessor.

"If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society," the president said. "They would not have believed that the world was round.  We've heard these folks in the past.  They probably would have agreed with one of the pioneers of the radio who said, 'Television won't last.  It's a flash in the pan.'  One of Henry Ford's advisors was quoted as saying, 'The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a fad.'"

The president decried the "naysayers" who "don't believe in the future, and don't believe in trying to do things differently."

He then cited President Rutherford B. Hayes whom, he said, "reportedly said about the telephone, 'It's a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?'"

The crowd at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Maryland, laughed.

"That's why he's not on Mt. Rushmore," the president said to laughter and applause, "because he's looking backwards.  He's not looking forwards. He's explaining why we can't do something, instead of why we can do something."

Those students need to run back to history class, because Mr. Obama's lesson about the 19th president seems wrong, at least according to historians at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio.

Hayes "was very technologically savvy," said Nancy Kleinhenz, the communications manager at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center. In addition to being the first president to have a telephone in the White House, he was also the first president to use the typewriter, experiment with the phonograph and record his voice on Thomas Edison's gramophone.

"He was a person that was very avant-garde, not only in his acceptance of technology but in every aspect of his life," Kleinhenz said. "His attitudes were opposite to many respects of what was standard for a man of his time."

She said a Rocky Point, R.I. newspaper article from June 29, 1877 described Hayes as "delighted" when he first experienced listened on the telephone, with "a gradually increasing smile wreathe(d) his lips and wonder shone in his eyes more and more." Hayes "looked at (the phone) a moment in surprise and remarked, 'That is wonderful.'"

The anecdote about Hayes pooh-poohing the telephone is a myth, she suggested.