Settling the Birther Controversy

For some time now, even before his assumption of the presidency, the subject of Barack Obama’s origins has been a vexed and tenacious issue, with no sign as yet of diminishing. Is he a “natural born citizen,” as per Article 2, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, the criterion of eligibility for the office of president? Was he born in Hawaii or Kenya or possibly in both places at the same time? Or is there, as potential 2012 presidential candidate Donald Trump speculates, “something on Obama’s birth certificate he doesn’t like”? Is there no dispositive evidence anywhere to be found that would give closure to the rumpus once and for all? Only one thing is certain: there is no denying the exceptionalism of Obama’s nativity.

“There are those who,” to use a favorite locution of the president, claim that the documents he has released to confirm his place of birth are incomplete and unpersuasive. These so-called “birthers” contend that, in the absence of a “long form” birth certificate replete with precise details regarding the name of the hospital, attending physician, and such-like, the president’s credentials are suspect. Others are content that a short-form “certificate of live birth,” two newspaper announcements, and state attestation are more than enough to settle the issue regarding the president’s authenticity and good faith. This is the argument of diverse reverend elders regularly trumpeted from the towering summit of Mount Media to a rabble of dubious and ungrateful nullifidians.

For example, in the Introduction to Our Choice, the redoubtable Al Gore points out that “the governor of Hawaii … personally examined and publicly verified the official certificate” and that the libraries of Hawaii “provided copies of contemporaneous birth announcements in two Honolulu newspapers.” Gore then dismisses the affair as an “odd faux controversy [that] is hardly worth mentioning,” and many will agree. But many remain unconvinced. After all, Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie, who promised to release the original document, now concedes that state privacy laws forbid him do so, and a personal affidavit from a government official and two newspaper notices do not constitute an actual birth certificate. They are merely bulletins whose provenance is not definitive and which serve as distractions from the real issue rather than incontrovertible proof of a blessed genesis. These bothersome birthers also point out that the list of presidential birthplace addresses omits only one, that of the current occupant of the White House. As a result, the debate continues to rage.

Thus Trump remains highly skeptical, believing there is something very curious about the whole affair, as does Rush Limbaugh. This is perhaps to be expected, but then even President Obama’s ardent disciple, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, asks where’s the harm in making the cryptic document public. Of course, people like Limbaugh and especially Trump, since he harbors presidential aspirations, will be mocked by the mainstream punditariat (though Matthews, obviously, gets a free pass). David Frum at Frum’s Forum thinks Trump may be “crazy” and Time’s Joe Klein feels “he…just…can’t…help… himself.” The problem is that ridicule is not an argument. Indeed, the problem is that the problem won’t go away.