Friday, May 06, 2011

EDITORIAL >>Raid quiets our birthers

As President Obama enjoys a boost in his approval rating following the successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound last Sunday, the birther movement that questioned the president’s citizenship is lying low, at least for now.

Americans encountered the spectacle of the president making public a certified copy of his birth certificate in an effort, a vain one probably, to show skeptical citizens that he was born in America and was its legitimate leader. History records nothing like it, and you must hope that the level of hatred and distrust that led to this misadventure is momentary, for if it is not, the country is headed for terrible times.

The “birther” movement once was humorous. It was the occupation of conspiracy theorists and political dirty tricksters, two distinctly different groups that have had a marginal role in American politics since Jefferson and Hamilton. But the birther odyssey was different. Every time a wild rumor about Barack Obama’s birth, rearing or religion was dispelled as false, the movement seemed to grow rather than subside. Facts and proof never factored into the equation.

When the hundredth charge—that the president was hiding an ugly treason by not obtaining and releasing the “long form” of his Hawaiian birth certificate—seemed to catapult the birth controversy to the front of the national stage, the president apparently believed he had to act. The latest Republican presidential huckster, the billionaire clown Donald Trump, was making the birth issue the cornerstone of his campaign. Polls showed that almost half of Republican voters believed that the president was not born in the United States and thus his landslide election in 2008 was illegitimate.

There was never the slightest cause to believe that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii. Why millions of people would believe stories in the face of facts is the question that the country must confront. Is it merely because of his ethnic heritage—he is the first president of racially mixed parentage and of African-American descent—and the Middle Eastern name his parents gave him? What would cause people to suspend their trust to such a degree? It could not be his political philosophy and methods, which are more like Dwight Eisenhower’s than anyone else. The popular issues that he ran and were elected upon—universal health insurance, ending the war in Iraq, changing the course of the war in Afghanistan, stopping the country’s breathless slide into the economic abyss—have been the course of his presidency. His heavily reviled health-insurance law is framed upon the plan that Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford tried to push through Congress 37 years ago over the opposition of liberal Democrats.

Some history of the birther movement may be helpful. Unsourced reports that Obama was born in Kenya—his father was a Kenyan student at the University of Hawaii, where he met Obama’s mother—surfaced early in the presidential campaign, in 2007.

The campaign of Hillary Clinton, whom Obama had surpassed in the middle primaries, went to work on the birth question, hoping for a knockout blow. Every lead led nowhere. Honolulu neighbors recalled the baby Barack coming home from the hospital. A search of both Honolulu newspapers turned up the birth list the week of Obama’s birth. In both papers it included Barack Hussein Obama and named his parents. One would have to subscribe to a vast conspiracy to believe otherwise. The teenage mother in Kenya, hoping one day to have her baby become president of the United States, would have had to call back to Honolulu from Nairobi the day of the birth and persuade the physician on duty and hospital officials to record a fake birth and then arrange with two newspapers to print the fake birth. The birth list is in microfilm copies of the Hawaiian newspapers in archives across the country.

When the story persisted, Obama requested a birth certificate from the Hawaiian Bureau of Vital Statistics. It supplied a certificate of live birth, which is what most states, including Arkansas, now do, and the Obama campaign posted it on its website.

There were allegations on the Internet that the certificate was a forgery, that it did not have the raised state seal (it did), that it was a Photoshop job made somewhere besides Hawaii. The director of the Bureau of Vital Statistics and the head of the Health Department time and again affirmed that it was a correct and official certificate. Other stories surfaced about people in Kenya being present for the birth there, but those proved to be fraudulent.

Finally, the movement settled on a single bit of “proof.” If the certificate were correct, Obama and the Hawaiian Health Department would release the original long form made at the hospital at the time of birth, although it was against Hawaiian law to make public the confidential document. So last week, the president requested it. The agency obliged, sent the president a copy of the original form, signed by the attending physician and the baby’s mother, and made copies available to whoever asked.

But that will not end the story, for facts are not important.

We cannot say whether it is distrust of this president with the exotic and uncommon name and ethnic heritage or something else—the rampant irresponsibility of the new media perhaps—that accounts for the casual disregard and even hostility to the truth. It is evident here in Arkansas. We saw it last month in Mike Huckabee’s reckless accusations that Obama was reared in Kenya into the Islamic religion and culture. His staff would later explain that he simply misspoke and that he believed the president was born in the United States.

We see it in the mainstream media. Provably false rumors are passed along as fact. Take the full-dress editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in March that accused the president of being dangerously irrational in his budget. It said the president was forecasting growth of a flat 5 percent in GDP every year for the next 11 years to justify his budget. A president so out of touch with reality is dangerous for the country, the editor said. Across the top of the page was a jagged chart showing the actual GDP growth the past couple of decades and a flat line across the top showing 5 percent, Obama’s budget assumption.

The only trouble was that the president never forecast growth of 5 percent, not even for one of the next 11 years. His budget, which anyone can access on the Internet, forecast a top growth rate of 4.4 percent in one year, 2013, and for six of the 11 years he forecast growth of less than 3 percent. The average was less than 2.8 percent a year, well below the growth rate of recovering economies the past half-century. But facts don’t matter. —Ernie Dumas