This Day In History: May 10

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On May 10, 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes has the White House’s first telephone installed in the mansion's telegraph room. President Hayes embraced the new technology, though he rarely received phone calls. In fact, the Treasury Department possessed the only other direct phone line to the White House at that time. The White House phone number was “1.” Phone service throughout the country was in its infancy in 1877. It was not until a year later that the first telephone exchange was set up in Connecticut and it would be more than 50 more years until President Herbert Hoover had the first telephone line installed at the president’s desk in the Oval Office.

In more recent years, presidential phone recordings have given the public insight into the personalities and political maneuvers of the nation’s leaders. On such tapes, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Harry Truman were frequently heard using profanity or openly criticizing political opponents without the constraints of being in the public eye or having to maintain a facade of presidential decorum. Most of the time those on the other end of the White House phone line had no knowledge they were being taped.

Since 1990, the National Archives and Records Administration has released to the public presidential phone recordings regarding subjects such as Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis; Johnson’s increase in the number of U.S. troops sent to Vietnam; and Nixon’s appointment of William Rehnquist to the U.S. Supreme Court. American RadioWorks states Nixon left behind more taped phone recordings than any other president, a fact that led to his political undoing in 1973 when Watergate investigators subpoenaed tapes and transcripts of close to 3,700 hours of Nixon's phone recordings. Since Nixon’s administration, declassified transcripts or sound recordings have become increasingly available to the public in print and online.

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