Our lesson for today comes from George and Ira Gershwin:
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother
When they said that man could fly
They told Marconi wireless was a phony . . .
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sang it in the film Shall We Dance? (1937). Seventy-five years on, the president revived it to tap dance around his rising gas prices and falling approval numbers. Delivering his big speech on energy at Prince George’s Community College, he insisted the American economy will be going gangbusters again just as soon as we start running it on algae and windmills. He noted that, as with Wilbur and his brother, there were those inclined to titter:
Let me tell you something. If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail — [Laughter] — they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society. [Laughter.] They would not have believed that the world was round. [Applause.] 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.” [Laughter.] One of Henry Ford’s advisers was quoted as saying, “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a fad.” [Laughter.]
The crowd loved it. But President Algy Solyndra wasn’t done:
There always have been folks who are the naysayers and don’t believe in the future, and don’t believe in trying to do things differently. One of my predecessors, Rutherford B. Hayes, reportedly said about the telephone, “It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?” [Laughter.] That’s why he’s not on Mount Rushmore — [laughter and applause] — because he’s looking backwards. He’s not looking forwards. [Applause.] He’s explaining why we can’t do something, instead of why we can do something.
It fell to Nan Card of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Ohio to inform the website Talking Points Memo that the quotation was apocryphal. Hayes had the first telephone in the White House, and the first typewriter, and Edison visited him to demonstrate the phonograph.
But obviously Rutherford B. Hayes isn’t as “forward-looking” as a 21st-century president who believes in Jimmy Carter malaise, 1970s Eurostatist industrial policy, 1940s British health-care reforms, 1930s New Deal–sized entitlements premised on mid-20th-century birth rates and life expectancy, and all paid for by a budget with more zeroes than anybody’s seen since the Weimar Republic. If that’s not a shoo-in for Mount Rushmore, I don’t know what is.
I was interested in the rest of Obama’s yukfest of history’s biggest idiots. Considering that he is (in the words of historian Michael Beschloss) “the smartest guy ever to become president,” the entire passage sounded as if it was plucked straight from one of those “Top Twenty Useful Quotes for Forward-Looking Inspirational Speakers” websites. And whaddayaknow? Rutherford B. Hayes, the TV flash in the pan, the horse is here to stay — they’re all at the Wikiquote page on “Incorrect Predictions.” Fancy that! You can also find his selected examples at the web page “Some Really Really Bad Predictions About the Future” and a bazillion others.
Given that the ol’ Hayes telephone sidesplitter turned out to be a bust, I wondered about the others. The line about television being a “flash in the pan” is generally attributed to “Mary Somerville, pioneer of radio educational broadcasts, 1948.” She was a New Zealand–born lass who while at Oxford wrote to the newly founded BBC with some ideas on using radio in schools. By the Seventies, the educational programming she had invented and developed was used in 90 percent of U.K. schools, and across the British Commonwealth from the Caribbean to Africa to the Pacific. She apparently used the flash-in-the-pan line in a private conversation recounted some years after her death by her fellow BBC executive, Grace Wyndham Goldie, a lady I knew very slightly. It was in the context of why she was pessimistic about early attempts at educational television. Mary Somerville would not have been surprised by American Idol or Desperate Housewives, but she thought TV’s possibilities for scholarly study were limited. If you remember Leonard Bernstein giving live illustrated music lectures on Beethoven on CBS in the Fifties, and you’ve lived long enough to see “quality public television” on PBS dwindle down to dreary boomer nostalgia, lousy Brit sitcoms, Laurence Welk reruns, and therapeutic infomercials, you might be inclined to agree that as an educational tool TV certainly proved “a flash in the pan.” And that’s before your grandkid gets home from school and complains he’s had to sit through Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth again.