He wasn’t born in Kenya, and he attended some of this country’s finest schools, but as he demonstrated anew on Thursday, Barack Obama shares with his fellow Americans one of their most dubious national traits: a nonchalant disregard for historical accuracy.
In an age when Twitter and other social media can propagate with distressing efficiency the fake Lincoln quote, the false Twain quip, the invented Ben Franklin advice, Obama is a president for our times.
Speaking yesterday about energy, the president found it necessary to casually slander Rutherford B. Hayes. In Obama’s telling, Hayes was a Luddite who, when confronted with the invention of the telephone, wondered who would ever want to use one.
“That’s why he’s not on Mount Rushmore,” Obama intoned. “He’s explaining why we can’t do something instead of why we can do something.”
It’s hard to know where to begin unraveling this, but a good place to start is the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, where resident scholar Nan Card confirmed to any journalist who bothered calling her — which is more than you can say for the White House speechwriting crew — that Hayes never said anything of the kind about the telephone, or any other invention.
According to contemporaneous accounts, what Hayes really said when he first used the phone was, “That is wonderful.”
In fact, Hayes installed the first telephone in the White House, along with the first typewriter, and invited Thomas Edison in for a visit to show off the phonograph — and was no one’s idea of a technophobe. “He really was the opposite,” Card told Benjy Sarlin of Talking Points Memo. “Between the telephone, the telegraph, the phonograph, and photography, I think he was pretty much on the cutting edge.”
This is not first time Obama and his communications team have fallen for a quote they apparently ripped from the Internet.
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. Given the demands of modern presidential politicking, no one is going to be perfect. 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 séances.”
(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,” he said. (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.)
This kind of fact-checking can come across as pedantic. Even his most persistent critics don’t believe, for instance, that Obama really thinks there are 57 states in this country, as he said in a moment of exhaustion at the tail end of the 2008 campaign.
But some conservatives have noticed that Republicans are invariably at the butt end of Obama’s historic flights of fancy. 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, underreported. 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. )
But social media is good for more than disseminating untruths. It’s also very good at poking fun at those who promulgate them in the first place.
A new hash tag on Twitter, #BarackObamasPresidentialFacts, popped up yesterday, full of the clever irreverence we’ve come to expect:
“James A. Garfield loved lasagna and hated Mondays,” tweeted one wag.
“Before winning the White House, Warren G. Harding and his running mate, ‘Nate Dogg,’ had 4 platinum albums,” proclaimed another.
“Ulysses S. Grant was our first Greek president,” proclaimed a third.
A whimsical Abe Lincoln made a cameo on #BarackObamasPresidentialFacts, just as he did in the real Obama’s memory banks: “Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin where he invented pancake syrup,”
But as Lincoln said — or was it Mark Twain? — truth is the first casualty of war. (Actually, that sentiment is originally Samuel Johnson’s. “Among the calamities of war,” Johnson wrote in 1758, “may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.”)
That quote is more than 140 characters, but it’s worth remembering nonetheless.