The president's "long form" birth certificate
By Bob Gaydos
Given that Barack Obama, the son of a Midwestern mother and a Kenyan father, managed to graduate from Columbia University and Harvard Law School (magna cum laude), write two books, get elected senator from Illinois, and defeat a bona fide American war hero (John McCain) and frontierswoman (Sarah Palin) in becoming the first black man elected president of the United States of America — all before the age of 50 — I have always considered Obama to be quite a bit smarter than the average American.
I am now amending that view. He is a lot smarter.
Of course, as history has demonstrated, intelligence is not required to be elected president of this country. It can even be a hindrance (look up Adlai Stevenson and Al Gore). On the other hand, being a white male with good family connections has always been a good starting point. In his campaign for the presidency, Obama shattered those prejudices, as well as that of race, by demonstrating an innate ability to talk intelligently, in terms anyone could understand, about any topic thrown at him. Plus he was charismatic. It certainly helped Obama that the outgoing president once said of his political opponents, “They misunderestimated me.”
Well, Obama’s political opponents and supporters may be guilty of the same crime with regard to him. Yes, we’re talking tea party diehards, evangelicals, social conservatives, broadcast media nut jobs, probably most Libertarians, ultra-liberals, and, of course, birthers. Especially birthers.
Once upon a time, in the mid-19th century, there was a Know-Nothing Party in this country. Its members, mostly white, middle-class, Protestant males, were worried about the arrival in America of large numbers of people from Ireland and Germany. Catholics. The Know-Nothings (they were so secretive, members asked about the party proclaimed to know nothing about it) tried to pass laws limiting immigration and naturalization and spread stories of conspiracies involving the pope. The Know-Nothings preached nativism and spread fear of anything and anyone not born in this country. They had a brief period of success as Americans, divided over slavery, became disenchanted with other political parties (the Whigs mainly). Successful Know-Nothing candidates — mostly on local levels — appointed only native-born Americans to government jobs. They eventually came to be known as the American Party and finally broke up over slavery, with many following another Illinois senator, Abraham Lincoln, into the new Republican Party. Coincidentally, of course, Lincoln is Obama’s political compass.
For the past few weeks, Donald Trump has been making political hay in the Republican Party by bringing up the matter of where Obama was born to anyone with a microphone who was willing to listen. These days, that means pretty much every electronic media outlet. “Where’s the birth certificate? Why won’t he produce the birth certificate?” Trump demanded over and over to “reporters” who should have known better since the president had produced his official Hawaiian record of birth when he ran for president and several times after that. The issue had long been settled.
But Trump and the birthers would not take the word of the governor of Hawaii and would not accept the official “short” birth certificate that is issued to anyone from that state who asks for such proof as, well, proof. Why was that? A conspiracy? You’d have to ask the birthers, but that Kenyan blood in Obama probably has a lot more to do with it than any concern over constitutional irregularities. So insistent was Trump and so strongly did his message resonate within Republican Party ranks that regular Republicans (Trump is a gadfly as far as political affiliation) didn’t know what to say about it. Call him an idiot and risk losing the conspiracy theory vote so crucial in GOP primaries. Agree with Trump and risk losing the vote of everyone else in the country.
As they sat, knowing not what to do, Trump climbed to the top of the polls of possible GOP presidential contenders for 2012. Such polls are meaningless this early in a campaign, but most politicians have never learned this fact.
So Wednesday, Obama did something smart. He held a press conference in which he called Trump an idiot without mentioning his name and at which he produced the original long form birth certificate from Hawaii. No one gets this form any more, only the president of the United States asking as a favor to put to rest a “distraction.”
Trump immediately took credit for “forcing” the disclosure by Obama. But other Republicans had a different reaction. “I have criticized members of my own party for making this some kind of issue so I’m really surprised that the White House is actually doing the same,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Other congressional Republicans, preparing to take on Obama over gas prices and the debt ceiling, called release of the birth certificate — which many of their faithful indicated they wanted to see — a “sideshow” and a “distraction.”
You think Obama doesn’t know that? You think he is quaking at the prospect of running against Trump for president? You think he doesn’t like conservative Republican leaders taking his side in the birth certificate “debate”? As embarrassing as he may be to most GOP leaders, Trump has claimed the ear of many of their voters and set an agenda of conspiracy and nativism. In a New York Times/CBS poll released a week before the president produced his long form birth certificate, 57 percent of the registered voters contacted believed Obama was born in the United States. But only one-third of self-identified Republicans believed that. A full 45 percent of them believed he was born elsewhere.
After his press conference, Obama surely picked up more support as a native-born son. But … Trump was still waiting for “verification” of the form and many birthers were still doubting its authenticity. As that former president said, never “misunderestimate” the tenacity of conspiracy theorists to cling to their beliefs.
Late Wednesday afternoon, the Law Blog of the Wall Street Journal polled readers on the question: “Does the release of President Obama’s birth certificate settle questions about his citizenship?” Of the 8,826 votes tallied, 72.4 percent said yes. Good for Obama. But 2,439 said no — a full 27.6 percent. Again, good for Obama.
Those people, a predictable, unshakeable minority operating on fear rather than fact, will follow Trump into the desert of Republican politics, or until he says, “I was only kidding. I’m not really running.” Meanwhile, more serious Republican candidates get no TV time or support and Obama and Democrats are going about raising money for the next election, basing at least part of their pitch on the birther issue. The Democratic Governors Association is the first major Democratic campaign arm to try and raise money on the subject, the Los Angeles Times reported a week ago. “You and I know that birtherism is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the extreme, hard-right agenda supported by Republican governors across the country. Thank you so much for helping the DGA hold them accountable,” executive director Colm O’Comartun wrote.
Yeah, they’re incredibly annoying, but when it comes to dealing with nativist conspiracy theorists of any name, Obama, like Lincoln, knows something.
Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org