During the 2008 campaign, in an effort to quell a nasty and unsubstantiated smear that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., the Obama team took the unprecedented step of releasing the candidate’s certificate of live birth, only to realize they had inadvertently fanned the flames of the fledgling “birther” conspiracy movement. This Wednesday, the White House tried to put an end to questions about the President’s birthplace once and for all by releasing the long-form version of his birth certificate. “We do not have time for this kind of silliness,” Obama told reporters in a press conference after making the document public. The birther story has been revived in recent weeks by the inflammatory statements of TV personality and potential GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump. Although the myth that Obama was not born in the U.S. has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked by leading news organizations, the White House has found the rumor stubbornly persistent. As the President put it, “this thing just keeps on going.” He has generally avoided speaking on the subject over the past two years, seemingly reluctant to escalate the malicious lies. But as the story has migrated from the extremist fringes to the mainstream media, and begun influencing the views of average Americans, the President clearly felt he could no longer afford to maintain his silence. Several Democratic allies have questioned the wisdom of wading into the fray — and the timing of the announcement — but White House officials apparently decided one month ago that the story had become damaging and distracting, and would continue to plague them through the 2012 campaign if they didn’t address it head on.
HOW DID WE GET HERE: If the endurance of the birther myth teaches us anything, it’s the power of repetition. Any claim, no matter how outrageous, can take hold over time if it gets enough media exposure. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that nearly 25 percent of Americans, and 45 percent of Republicans, believed Mr. Obama was born in another country. The shocking fact that a quarter of all Americans now believe the lie — and an additional 18 percent say they don’t know where he was born — illustrates just how successful birther conspiracists have been at sowing doubt and attracting attention from mainstream news outlets. While the exact origins of birtherism are fuzzy, it has certainly been pursued most vigorously by the far right. Early proponents included California dentist Orly Taitz and the conservative website World Net Daily. They insisted that the birth certificate produced by Obama was a forgery, and Taitz even claimed — twice — to have a copy of the “real” Kenyan birth certificate proving Obama was not American-born. A string of specious lawsuits claiming the president wasn’t qualified to hold office were all dismissed by the courts, and some of the filers, including Taitz, had to pay fines. However, by then mainstream figures, including then-CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, had begun weighing in and giving extremists the attention they so desperately sought, which allowed other networks and publications to “cover the coverage.” In fact, in his statement Obama gently admonished the media for being complicit in promoting birtherism. The story entered deeper into the political bloodstream when several GOP politicians realized it would be politically advantageous to play up the issue to their base. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R), Sen. David Vitter, (R- LA), and Alan Keyes all jumped on the bandwagon, while other Republicans, including Sarah Palin, simply flirted with birtherism by making leading statements like, “I think it’s a fair question” to investigate Obama’s birthplace. In March 2009, Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and 11 House co-sponsors introduced legislation requiring presidential candidates to provide a copy of their original birth certificate. More “birther bills” would soon follow. This year alone, bills have cropped up in more than a dozen legislatures to force presidential candidates to prove their citizenship. A few Republican leaders, however, recognized that embracing the theory would be toxic for the party, and distanced themselves from the birthers. Erick Erickson, the editor of the popular RedState blog, publicly purged birthers from his site in 2010.
THE AFTERMATH: On Wednesday Obama finally gave birthers what they said they always wanted: the long-form version of his birth certificate that has been kept on file in Hawaii. It surprised no one that, despite being presented with even more incontrovertible evidence that the President is an American citizen, many of them remained unconvinced. Birther crusader Pamela Geller declared on Fox that the newly-released document was “suspect,” while her Fox hosts appeared to nod in agreement. Texas state representative Leo Berman (R), the author of a birther bill, complained that the certificate didn’t look old enough, and Orly Taitz questioned its authenticity based on the fact that the race of Obama’s father is listed as “African,” not “Negro.” However, several prominent voices on the right admitted that the issue seemed to be resolved. Some, including Rush Limbaugh, engaged in revisionist history by suggesting they never had any doubts about the President’s origins and had been on his side all along. Other GOP leaders, confronted with the error of their past claims, tried to blame the whole affair on Obama himself, suggesting the controversy was his fault for not releasing his birth certificate earlier. “All I would say is, why did it take so long?” said potential GOP contender Newt Gingrich. He was not alone in ascribing sinister motives to the President’s timing: Sarah Palin tweeted to her followers, “don’t let the WH distract you w/ the birth crt,” and insinuated the President was simply trying to keep attention away from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s statement later that day. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus chastised the president for not focusing on more important issues. “Unfortunately his campaign politics and talk about birth certificates is distracting him from our No. 1 priority–our economy.” In the wake of the document’s release, the dust seems to be settling exactly as you’d expect: some people have abandoned the cause while the die-hards fight on. But the President made it clear he wasn’t concerned about the fringe: “I know that there’s going to be a segment of people for which, no matter what we put out, this issue will not be put to rest,” he said. “But I’m speaking to the vast majority of the American people, as well as to the press.”
WHY IT STICKS: It is no coincidence that MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow titled her segments on the birther story “Birther of a Nation,” an allusion to the D.W. Griffith film long thought to glorify the rise of the KKK. Doubts about the President’s origins have persisted because they speak to underlying concerns and suspicions about his background, ethnicity, and race. For some, the very presence of an African-American in the Oval Office is so offensive that they simply cannot accept his authority. The birther angle conveniently allows this segment of the population to wrap up their hatred in the flag — or more accurately, the Constitution. By suggesting Obama wasn’t born in America, what they are really claiming is that he is not even legally the President. The Constitution is regarded as something close to a sacred document in conservative circles, and in the birther world, Obama’s tenure itself is a violation of the founding document. The spread of the birther conspiracy into the mainstream reveals a disturbingly pervasive racial animus. This insidious fear that the America of old is being contaminated by foreign radicals isn’t only manifested in the birther debate. It can be seen in hysteria about “anchor babies,” Islamophobia, and Republican attempts to end birthright citizenship or prevent renewal of the Voting Rights Act. And while birtherism may always thrive only at the margins, this unsettling broader trend is firmly established. It turns out that electing a black president did not suddenly allow the country to “transcend” its checkered history with race. If anything, it has put lingering tensions front and center, and forced us to confront them.