It was with mixed feelings that I heard Donald Trump declare he believes Barack Obama was born in United States, period. I didn’t know whether to shed a tear or shake my head for the end of an era.
Not because I believed Obama wasn’t, or even know any reasonable person who seriously thinks that. I don’t. I have interviewed people who think it, have grilled politicians who hinted at it and once heard a hard-core birther fanatic try to get the chief justice of the Supreme Court to comment on her case that would “prove” it.
Obama had only been in office about five months when Orly Taitz, a dentist and lawyer from Southern California, queried Chief Justice John Roberts in Moscow, Idahoa about her case to have Obama disqualified from office as a non-citizen. Roberts was at the University of Idaho for a speech, and agreed to take questions from the audience providing they weren’t about a pending case. Taitz, who rushed to the microphone after an all night drive from So Cal, ignored the caveat, allowing Roberts to demur and security to close in and escort her out.
In the audience to cover the speech, I unwisely discounted this as the rantings of just another crazy Californian – a common but unwise prejudice developed over years in Washington state – and didn’t mentioned it in the next day’s story. A day later I saw Taitz was claiming to have confronted the chief justice and extracted a promise to review the case.
Not the way I remembered it, so I put a clip from the speech Q and A that I thought would discount the claim. Shortly afterward, one of the newspaper’s web team said I was getting unusually large amounts of traffic on the blog and wanted to know what I had done. (Clearly, he didn’t think it was my deathless prose.) People were linking in from around the nation to hear the fairy godmother of the conspiracy theory. Some people have wrongly proclaimed Trump as the leader of the movement, but Taitz was there long before the Donald.
Birtherism – such well-established belief systems rate an -ism, – became one of the most inane ideologies to do the Limbo Rock on the American political landscape. The Hawaii Secretary of State’s office routinely confirmed over the phone that Barack Obama was born on the islands. Not good enough for birthers. They wanted to see a printed birth certificate, and later a “long form” printed birth certificate. Someone dug up a microfilm of the Honolulu newspaper with birth announcements from that week, and there was baby Barack’s name. Coulda been a plant by people who had a baby elsewhere and smuggled him into the state, birthers said. This made boatloads of sense: a white American woman and a visitor from Kenya could logically conspire in 1961 – four years before the Civil Rights Act passed and when part of the country wouldn’t have even let their son drink from the same water fountain as a white person – plan for their mixed-race son to grow up to be president so they had to cover their tracks and plant his name in the daily paper. Or maybe the microfilm copies of the paper were altered to add in Obama’s name. If only we could find a set that hadn’t been doctored by the New World Order or the Tri-Lateral Commission. But no, they’re too thorough.
The -ism generated a cornucopia of wild fantasies by Obama haters, who I hesitate to call racists because it might hurt their feelings. And because, after all, Obama is half white, so statistically they could be just as anti-Caucasian as anti-African American, right? Besides, conspiratorialists are often farther over the edge than racists, down in a valley where Elvis is alive, Paul is dead and the moon landing was shot in a studio.
Over the years, I’ve talked to conspiratorialists of many stripes and even a few plaids. It’s part of my job description. Few have been as ardent as birthers.
At least when I was lectured on the lame stream media not doing it’s job to investigate the provenance of Obama’s nativity, I had a ready excuse. This is a small, regional paper, buddy; if you can get my boss to pay my way to Hawaii, I’m on the next plane.
But birtherism was on its way to the trash heap of wingnut history when Trump infused it with his considerable energy and a promise to get send investigators to Hawaii to discover the truth. The fact that he never revealed what they uncovered makes me think they found a sweet deal that I never could: jetting to the islands on someone else’s tab, sitting on the beach for weeks sipping Mai Tais and calling back once a day with the message “We’re getting closer” until Trump got wise and canceled their credit cards. Having promised a “big reveal” from what his crack investigators were going to find, it’s no wonder he was hoping everyone would just shut the heck up about the whole thing and didn’t admit the obvious until he absolutely had to. Plus, he had to come up with an idea on how try deflecting blame to Hillary Clinton.