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Opinion >  Column

Front Porch: ‘Natural born’ needs more clarification

In five days America will have its say in the midterm elections. And the very next day the pontificating regulars will grab the mics again and issue forth with their braying outrage over whatever seems politically expedient to be outraged about.

But haven’t you enjoyed the relative silence since midsummer, when most of the grandstanders managed to tuck away their moral indignation in advance of the election lest they say something that might tilt the electorate away from their interests? They will miraculously rediscover their outrage and emerge from cover to have at it again.


But amid all the noise that’s about to resume, there’s one group I really do want to hear from again. The birthers – you know, that group of conspiracy theorists who are convinced that President Obama isn’t a legitimate president because they believe he wasn’t born in America. They say they base their campaign on the U.S. Constitution’s provision that those eligible to become president must be “a natural born citizen” or a citizen of the United States at the time the constitution was adopted, and that since they are certain Obama was born in Kenya, he didn’t qualify.

They also focused on Obama’s foreign sounding name and made noticeable effort to use his full name, placing verbal emphasis on his middle name, Hussein. Never mind that America is filled with citizens and patriots with foreign sounding names (however you define that) because we have been since our founding a nation of immigrants. But I digress. The fact is that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii to an American mother and a Kenyan-born father, who returned to his native country in 1964 when young Barack was 3.

Beginning this winter I expect we’ll be seeing 2016 presidential hopefuls throw their hats into the ring – from Hillary Clinton to a long list from the Republican field, one of whom will likely be Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, who is making a name for himself in conservative circles and seems quite the rising star.

You know Ted Cruz – or for the sake of proper identification, in true birther fashion, Rafael Edward Cruz – born to an American mother and a Cuban-born father (who became a naturalized citizen in 2005). And here’s the well-known, nondisputed interesting part – young Ted was born in Canada, moving with his family to Texas when he was 4.

Now if you interpret “natural born citizen” the way it generally is – having citizenship at birth, no matter where that birth takes place (as in, being born to an American citizen) – there’s no question of Cruz’s citizenship. And even if Obama had been born in another country (which he wasn’t!), he’d still be a “natural born citizen” under the same criteria.

But let’s look at the facts, birther-wise. Cruz was in fact born in another country – the clear disqualifier for birthers and some others as well. He held dual citizenship (perfectly legal) until about a year ago when he renounced his Canadian citizenship, stating he didn’t even know he had dual status. C’mon, conspiracists, how suspect is that, loyalty-wise?

I would like the birthers to gather up all their passion – and I know they’ve got it – and challenge Ted Cruz’s eligibility for the presidency, should he run, and take that all the way to the Supreme Court. Their ideological consistency is on the line here, and they will unintentionally be doing a public service at the same time.

The Supreme Court, the arbiter of all things constitutional, has never weighed in on just what those presidential qualification words really mean, so perhaps it’s time for the high court to speak. And it’s going to take a little activism to make that happen – which is where the birthers can do some good.

Consider the case of John McCain, the senior senator from Arizona who was born in the Panama Canal Zone to American parents while his father was stationed there. When McCain ran for president in 2008 the Senate chose to be heard on the matter, passing a nonbinding resolution (co-sponsored by Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama from the opposition party) declaring him a natural born citizen. Even the Senate had concerns that birthplace is not a settled matter in the presidential eligibility debate.

There has been legislation, revised legislation, scholarly papers and much discussion since the original language was written, and the more generous and fair notion of natural born citizen generally (though not always) prevails. Interesting to me as well is the other part of the original qualifying constitutional language – a person being a citizen at the time the Constitution was adopted. Since America was just getting started as a nation in 1776, a number of its citizens were from elsewhere originally, including founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, primary author of “The Federalist Papers,” and Thomas Paine, whose “Common Sense” laid out the necessity for breaking free from England and helped pave the way for the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration, it should be noted, was signed by 56 men, eight of whom were foreign-born.

I like that the Constitution gave access to the presidency for all patriots of that era and I wonder why the framers didn’t give such clear latitude to those from subsequent generations. Maybe they foresaw that we would be where we are today, crankier about who is a citizen in general and who can be, so perhaps we should take a closer look at their language and intent in light of America’s new focus on the subject.

I don’t expect the birthers will actually heed my call – and it’s really not about Ted Cruz, of course, who I personally believe has the right to run. It’s about all of our sons and daughters who might want to become president. They should know if they’ve got a clear path or not.

 Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at

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