‘Birther’ Movement Dogs Republicans
Friday, July 17, 2009 at 6:00 am
Kris Kobach is a law professor with degrees from Harvard, Yale and Oxford, and a veteran of George W. Bush’s administration who, after Sept. 11, helped craft the policy on domestic registration of foreign visitors to the United States. In May, he announced a run for Kansas secretary of state, campaigning for photo ID requirements at the voting booth. He’s considered a clear front-runner for the job. But over the weekend, Kobach spoke at a Republican Party barbecue and committed a minor gaffe. According to the Lawrence Journal-World, Kobach “asked what President Obama and God had in common, with the punchline being neither has a birth certificate.”
Kansas Democrats pounced. “While Kris Kobach has in the past associated himself with extremists who frequently show poor taste,” said state Democratic Party Executive Director Kenny Johnston, “his latest attempt at humor has gone too far.” Kobach told the Democrats to “lighten up” before walking back the comment, explaining that “until a court says otherwise, I believe Barack Obama is a natural-born citizen.”
Kobach could have offered another defense. The joke was not his. One month earlier, Rush Limbaugh made the same remark on his radio show. “Barack Obama has one thing in common with God,” Limbaugh said. “Know what it is? God does not have a birth certificate either.” And Limbaugh may not have been writing his own material, either. At Patriot Depot, a conservative web site that sells books by Glenn Beck and signs designed for anti-tax Tea Parties, buyers can pay $10 to get two bumper stickers that read: “Obama & God Have ONLY ONE THING in Common: NO BIRTH CERTIFICATE! The Difference Is God Doesn’t Think He’s Obama!”According to a salesman for Patriot Depot, the company has sold “hundreds” of this and another birth certificate sticker since advertising them with the conservative opinion sites GOPUSA.com and Townhall.com.
Six months into Obama’s presidency, after scores of embarrassing legal defeats, and even after tussles between the attoneys who’ve turned frivolous lawsuits about the president’s citizenship into full-time jobs, the cottage industry of conspiracy theories about the president’s birth shows no signs of disappearing. The theories have found a home in talk radio and on conservative web sites such as Free Republic and WorldNetDaily. Conspiracy theorists are increasingly sending letters to their local papers, embarrassing members of Congress at town hall meetings, and hounding Hill staffers about challenges to the president’s citizenship.
“I wouldn’t consider what Kris Kobach said a ‘gaffe,’ although it wasn’t a prudent comment,” said William B. Lacy, director of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. “It’s not at the root of the complaint that conservative [Republicans] have with this administration. In essence, what any Republican is doing by raising that issue is creating his or her own red herring. Kobach is probably okay here, but there’s a certain danger, I think, if it becomes something you repeat on a continuous basis.”
There’s no indication that the White House is worried about all of this. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has occasionally called on Lester Kinsolving, a radio host and correspondent for WorldNetDaily, to air the latest theories about the president’s citizenship as a way of defusing tense press briefings. While “birthers” claim that the president’s lawyers have spent “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars” fighting their lawsuits, they’ve never provided evidence for that claim. Indeed, most of the suits have been tossed out of court on technicalities.
Ironically, the ‘birther’ movement began in response to Obama’s own efforts to debunk rumors. One year ago this week, the presidential campaign of then-Sen. Barack Obama launched FightTheSmears.com, a web site designed to push back against false rumors about the first African-American presidential nominee. To push back against rumors that he was not born in Hawaii, the campaign reproduced a Certificate of Live Birth from the state’s Health Department. Instead of terminating the conspiracy theories, that inspired new theories — that the certificate had been forged or that even if it hadn’t been forged it was the sort of certificate that could be given to someone born outside of the United States. But the certificate is specific about Obama’s birth in Honolulu, down to the 7:24 p.m. time.
“It’s crazy,” said Janice Okubo, director of communications for the Hawaii Department of Health. “I don’t think anything is ever going to satisfy them.”
Okubo, who said that she gets weekly questions from Obama ‘Birthers’ that are “more like threats,” explained that the certificate of live birth reproduced by Obama’s campaign should have debunked the conspiracy theories. “If you were born in Bali, for example,” Okubo explained, “you could get a certificate from the state of Hawaii saying you were born in Bali. You could not get a certificate saying you were born in Honolulu. The state has to verify a fact like that for it to appear on the certificate. But it’s become very clear that it doesn’t matter what I say. The people who are questioning this bring up all these implausible scenarios. What if the physician lied? What if the state lied? It’s just become an urban legend at this point.”
The urban legend has become too pervasive for Republicans to avoid. In February, Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) introduced a much-mocked bill that would require presidential campaigns to provide “a copy of the candidate’s birth certificate.” While Posey initially said that he disbelieved conspiracy theories about the president’s birth, he told the host of an Internet radio show that he’d discussed the possibility of Obama being removed from office over “the eligibility issue” with “high-ranking members of our Judiciary Committee.” As of July 15, nine fellow Republican members of Congress were backing the bill. While Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) has said that he supports the bill because he didn’t know whether Obama was a citizen, other sponsors say that they weighed in to pour cold water on the conspiracy theories.
“It’s a good idea,” said John Donnelly, a spokesman for Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who became one of the bill’s co-sponsors this month. “If candidates provided that information to the Federal Election Commission you wouldn’t have all this hullaballoo. You don’t want to needlessly expose presidents to crazy conspiracy theories.”
At the state level, “birther” conspiracy theorists have made headway in getting Republican lawmakers interested in legislation like Posey’s. At least four Republican members of Missouri’s state legislature have looked into introducing a similar bill. State Sen. Randy Brogdon (R-Okla.) who is running for governor of Oklahoma in 2010, said that he’d co-sponsor birth certificate legislation if it made it out of the state senate and would “definitely” sign the bill if he won the governorship.
“You bet I’d sign it,” said Brodgon. “I know I’d have no problem showing my birth certificate.”
The Republicans who appear to be willing to listen to “birthers,” even to debunk them, have to walk a tightrope. In April, freshman Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) held a town hall meeting at her old high school in Cheyenne, Wyo., and got a question about the president’s citizenship. Lummis challenged the skeptic to “please send” evidence that the president was not a natural-born citizen. “I’m not questioning your concern,” Lummis said. “I am questioning whether there is credible evidence.” In early July, a small group of “birthers” walked the halls of Congress handing “grand jury presentments” over to the confused front desk assistants of members of Congress; the activists rushed online to report the latest member who had been “handed” the information. After “birthers” provided some of their papers to Michael Schwartz, the chief of staff to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), they rushed online to report that Schwartz had been won over to the cause and was about to get in touch with Orly Taitz, a California lawyer who has filed several unsuccessful challenges to the president’s citizenship.
“It is possible to mistake politeness for agreement,” Schwartz told TWI, “and I make every effort to be polite.” He did have a “brief conversation with Dr. Taitz,” but challenged the way online “birthers” had hyped their contact with Coburn’s office. “An observer would not report it quite like this,” said Schwartz.
Taitz’s lawsuits and the pressure of conservative talkers like Limbaugh have made it increasingly difficult for Republicans to avoid the “birthers.” On June 16, after Limbaugh joked about the president’s citizenship, WorldNetDaily editor-in-chief Joseph Farah appeared on the Web-based Recharge Radio to thank the host for spreading the “birther” message. “What that did is beyond Rush’s impact,” said Farah. “It also gives other talk show hosts license to talk about this issue … Rush is kind of the standard of talk show hosts. A lot of people emulate what he does. He crossed the Rubicon on that show, and I’m very proud of him for doing it.”
Farah’s instincts have been borne out by conservative media. This week, Taitz represented Maj. Stefan F. Cook, a reservist who volunteered for duty in Afghanistan, then demanded to be released from the commitment unless the president proved that he was a U.S. citizen. “I did not volunteer with the intent of becoming a conscientious objector,” Cook told TWI in an email. On Wednesday Cook’s deployment was cancelled, and a spokesman for Centcom took issue with Taitz’s claim, made in a WorldNetDaily story, that this decision verified conspiracy theories about the president’s birth. Later that night, Sean Hannity cited the story on his Fox News show and used Taitz’s version of the facts, not Centcom’s.
“Major Cook and his lawyer expressed joy at this outcome,” said Hannity. “And they took it as an admission on the part of the military that the president is not in fact a legitimate citizen by birth.”