Dear President Obama: Show Some Respect. President Hayes Earned It.

We're sorry, President Hayes. He doesn't know what he's talking about.

One of the many deplorable tendencies of the previous Democratic President was to use the memories, reputations and good names of his predecessors as props to deflect criticism for his own slimy and irresponsible conduct and lies. A standard feature of Bill Clinton’s “everybody does it” defense during his Monica travails was to have his surrogates, like the shameless Lanny Davis, mouth that Bill was no different from other Presidents who used the power of their office to cheat on their wives and exploit other women. Since it wasn’t too ennobling for this tactic to rely on the two most indisputable examples of Presidential sexual excess–Jack Kennedy being a (false) Democratic icon and a misogynist, and Warren G. Harding being the U.S.’s worst or next to worst President ever (depending upon your opinion of James Buchanan, President Clinton allowed his lapdogs to accuse FDR (who as a paraplegic was almost certainly incapable of anything but an illicit affair of the heart), and Dwight Eisenhower, whose supposedly adulterous relationship with his female driver in World War II is 1) unconfirmed rumor only and 2) has nothing to do with his conduct as President. The last time I respected Chis Matthews was when he reprimanded a Clinton surrogate for raising the Ike story, calling it—correctly—an outrageous slur on a great American patriot  to try to excuse Clinton’s inexcusable conduct.

It is disheartening to see President Obama displaying a similar lack of respect and deference for his White House predecessors. Every one of the men who served in the office of President performed a great service at significant personal sacrifice in a job both impossible and dangerous. If anyone is obligated to give these men appropriate respect, it should be the current President, whoever it is. But just as President Obama has set new records for blaming his immediate predecessor for problems deep into his own term, he has shown a Clintonian willingness to trash a past President  for his own purposes.

This would be despicable if the denigration had a basis in fact. Obama’s slur on the 19th President, Rutherford B. Hayes, however, has none.

Speaking about the need to develop new sources of American energy in Largo, Md., Politico reported, Obama picked on Hayes as an example of  backward and myopic leadership, saying,

“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.”

No historian confirms Obama’s slander on Hayes. Unlike the President (or, more likely, his speechwriters, for whose negligence he is 100% accountable), New York Magazine checked with a Hayes authority, the curator of manuscripts at the Rutherford B. Hayes Center. She confirmed that the story is a commonly repeated one, and also that it is completely false. The curator, Nan Card, then showed the magazine’s reporter some other materials, sources that, unlike President Obama, have some facts behind them:

“She then read aloud a newspaper article from June 29, 1877, which describes Hayes’s delight upon first experiencing the magic of the telephone. The Providence Journal story reported that as Hayes listened on the phone, “a gradually increasing smile wreathe[d] his lips and wonder shone in his eyes more and more.” Hayes took the phone from his ear, “looked at it a moment in surprise and remarked, ‘That is wonderful.'” In fact, Card noted, Hayes was not only the first president to have a telephone in the White House, but he was also the first to use the typewriter, and he had Thomas Edison come to the White House to demonstrate the phonograph. “So I think he was pretty much cutting edge,” Card insisted, “maybe just the opposite of what President Obama had to say there.”

President Obama, then, told the nation that is supposed to trust him that an important historical figure and U.S, President was an unimaginative fool when he was more likely an intellectually curious, forward thinking man in favor of innovation. Anything to get re-elected, eh, Mr. President?

Let me also correct another historical misconception passed on to our children as fact by our education-dedicated leader. His false characterization of Hayes’s intellect and character is not why he isn’t on Mount Rushmore. Under-appreciated U.S. Presidents are a life-long passion with me, and Hayes, along with Tyler, Polk, Garfield, and Arthur, is one of my favorites. Hayes had no chance to be on Mount Rushmore, because he was elected in an electoral mess, similar to the 2000 fiasco but worse. He lost the popular vote but the electoral college was deadlocked, so the Democrats agreed to let Hayes take the office in return for a Republican pledge to remove federal troops from the South and let the old Confederacy govern itself. Hayes, a scrupulously, almost fanatically honest politician, had no part in his party’s deal but agreed to go along with it, while simultaneously pledging not to seek re-election.

Hayes also had no chance at a ringingly successful term of office, because he was saddled with a Democratic Congress and was publicly reviled as a the holder of a “stolen presidency.” Still, he showed fortitude, principle and courage. He fought for civil rights measures, repeatedly vetoing Congressional provisions that would sanction Southern states preventing blacks from voting, and cutting a deal with Southern leaders to remove the last remaining troops from the South in return for a promise (quickly broken) to respect the rights of black citizens. Hayes also fought hard to destroy the corrupt patronage system, and laid the philosophical and political groundwork for the civil service reforms put in place after he left office. He angered his own party by appointing men with sound qualifications rather than political connections to government posts. Hayes also signed a bill that for the first time, allowed women attorneys to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rutherford Birchard Hayes had a funny-looking beard, a dorky first name and a teetotaling wife who refused to serve liquor in the White House and whose prudishness about language was legendary. But he deserves nothing but reverence and respect as a great American, not Obama’s ignorant mockery. He was a Civil War general and hero who was wounded 5 times in battle, a successful lawyer, popular Congressman and a two-term Governor of Ohio. Hayes kept trying to retire to private life, but was repeatedly called to serve his country. He didn’t seek riches or power, and the conditions of his ascent to the White House only scarred his reputation. Still, he always sought to do what was right for his country. As part of the research for my college honors thesis, I read biographies, in some cases several, of every U.S. President from Washington to Richard Nixon. I remember that no other man to hold the office matched Hayes in possessing the qualities of intelligence, integrity, courage, idealism, honesty, and humility. Humility isn’t a big item among our Presidents.

In short, Rutherford B. Hayes deserves neither obscurity nor ridicule, but honor and gratitude. He certainly doesn’t deserve to be mocked by President Obama to score cheap political points. President Hayes left office with the nation better off than he had found it, having taken a difficult situation and handled it as well as anyone on the scene, and better than most.

President Obama should aspire to do as well.

And he should show some respect.

5 thoughts on “Dear President Obama: Show Some Respect. President Hayes Earned It.

  1. I also noted, Jack, that the RBH center in Ohio (run by a Mr. Hayes who is the late president’s great-great grandson) point out that his White House telephone number was… 1! It had to start somewhere!! Kudos to President Hayes, one of our most ethical, least appreciated and far-sighted chief executives. Obama and Clinton both could have taken some good lessons from him. But that would have required some humility- and vision- on their parts.

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