What’s fun about this blog gig is that you never know who or what will pop up in the political conversation.Take yesterday, for instance. Barack Obama and Joe Biden were out on the trail previewing their re-election themes – especially Biden, who had the easy job of reminding blue-collar voters in swing-state Ohio that the Republicans would have let the car industry die – when an obscure dead president suddenly rose from the grave. Obama was in the midst of a pitch for new sources of energy, touting himself as a forward-thinking leader, when he said this: “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?’ 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. The point is, there will always be cynics and naysayers.”Rutherford B. Hayes? Now there’s a guy who doesn’t come to mind every day. Actually, another historical allusion was offered a few days ago, when Newt Gingrich said that Mitt Romney is the weakest GOP frontrunner “since Leonard Wood,” but few made a beeline for Wikipedia to learn about Leonard Wood because few really care at this point what Newt says about anything. Except for the fawning multitudes who live only in Newt’s head.But when a president invokes a White House forebear, people care. Within minutes, there was an outbreak of Rutherford B. Hayesmania. Wasn’t he one of those interchangeable bearded guys who came and went during the long interregnum between Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt? And did he really have that ‘tude about the telephone?Turns out, he didn’t. Obama got Hayes wrong, because if the 19th president were alive on this very day, he’d probably be standing in line for the iPad3.Some reporters got on the horn yesterday to the Curator of Manuscripts at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center – and learned that the telephone quote was apocryphal, and that, quite the contrary, Hayes loved the new device. According to the Providence Journal, circa 1877, Hayes put an ear to the phone and “a gradually increasing smile wreathe(d) his lips and wonder shone in his eyes more and more.” (Phones have greatly improved since 1877. So has newspaper writing.)Hayes was also a fan of the early typewriters, and he put one in the White House. As for the faux phone quote, it has survived via repetition. Obama isn’t even the first president to use it. Ronald Reagan retailed the anecdote during a technology event back in 1985, and that incident wound up in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs (because Jobs attended the event).But we were talking about Hayes. Obama actually did him a favor by bringing him up. There was a study a few years back that named Hayes as the least-searched president on the Internet, and that seems unfair. He’s way more worthy of attention than, say, Chester A. Arthur. In fact, Obama would discover that Hayes is a guy he can relate to.Hayes ran as a reformer who was determined to change the tone in Washington. He did manage to do a few Big Things – he signed an executive order that barred federal employes from engaging in politics, the first step toward civil service reform; he signed a bill that allowed women lawyers to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court – but mostly he was thwarted by his enemies.The opposition Democrats derided him as an illegitimate president; because he had won a disputed election, they called him “His Fraudulency” and “Rutherfraud B. Hayes.” They often seized on little incidents and conflated them into big scandals, like the time that Hayes bought a special set of croquet balls (he loved croquet) and the Democrats inveighed against his wasting six dollars of the taxpayers’ money. They also ceaselessly ridiculed the First Lady (Lucy Hayes was the first presidential wife to be called “the First Lady”), because, in their view, she was too preachy about people’s drinking habits. She was a teetotaler who warned about the health risks of alcohol, thereby earning herself the snarky nickname “Lemonade Lucy.”Hayes’ Democratic opponents triumphed in the midterm elections of 1878, winning both congressional chambers and diminishing his clout. It was ironic that they disdained him so much, because he had repeatedly reached out to them in the spirit of reconciliation. (They were strong in the South, and, a decade past the Civil War, he had sought reconciliation with the South. In his view, America was not about blue states and gray states, it was about the United States.) He extended his hand, and his opponents took it as weakness.Meanwhile, many in his own party thwarted him as well; they hated his reformist attempts to replace patronage with a civil service system. So, in the end, he said the heck with it. He refused to seek re-election. He wrote that his one-term tenure “was so full of trouble and embarrassments as to be a continual struggle, and I do not propose to invite a new season of embarrassment.”OK, Obama can’t relate to that one. He’s clearly pumped for a new season – and why not, given the embarrassment of riches that his Republicans opponents have bequeathed him. Rick Santorum is busy alienating even more Latino voters (specifically, Puerto Ricans in swing-state Florida), and Gov. Tom Corbett is helping the party alienate even more women in swing-state Pennsylvania, insisting that women seeking abortions should submit to fetal ultrasounds (his advice to the gals: “You just have to close your eyes”).Poor Rutherford B. Hayes never got the chance to enjoy such hapless opposition. So before his 24-hour boomlet expires, let’s at least give the guy his telephone.
I’m slated to do another Live Chat at 1 p.m. Monday. I’ll post the link that morning.
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