< The Birth Certificate and Legacy of Presidential Rumors


Friday, April 29, 2011

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama held a White House press conference, not about the economy, not about education or health care, not about the increasing U.S. role in various parts of the Middle East. He held a press conference to release his long form birth certificate. The President gently mocked the major networks for interrupting their regular programming to cover the conference.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Let me just comment first of all on the fact that I can't get the networks to break in on all kinds of other discussions.


BOB GARFIELD: The birther conspiracy had again become a mainstream news item, as potential Republican candidate Donald Trump continually raised it in interviews and stump speeches.

DONALD TRUMP: He’s got a certificate of live birth. That’s—by the way, despite what certain liberal press says, that’s not a birth certificate.

DONALD TRUMP: All I want to do is see this guy’s birth certificate!


DONALD TRUMP: Why doesn't he show his birth certificate? And you know what? I wish he would, because I think it’s a terrible pale that’s hanging over him.

BOB GARFIELD: Ironically, before the birth certificate was released, Trump said it was the media, not him, that was making the big deal out of the issue. And even after its release, he continued to blame the media. Here he is with CNN’s John King.

JOHN KING: You raised this, saying the President should release this -


DONALD TRUMP: No, no, you raised it


JOHN KING: - as a question. No, I did not raise this.


DONALD TRUMP: Excuse me, you raised this.


JOHN KING: I didn't call a press conference in Palm Beach earlier this week. I haven't been on all these television shows.


DONALD TRUMP: Excuse me, you raised this. And every time I sit down with the press, all they want to talk about is the birth certificate.

BOB GARFIELD: Just as with the release of the short form birth certificate by the Obama campaign in 2008, this wasn't enough to stop the insanity, as birther suspicions now turned to forgery. James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He says irrational political discourse is nothing new in our country’s history and, like conspiracy theories before it, this one is not likely to go away. Jim, welcome back to On the Media.

JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you very much, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: It was as if the President of the United States had convened the press to put to rest, once and for all, the rumor that Mikey, the kid from the Life Cereal ads, had died eating Pop Rocks.


BOB GARFIELD: It was kind of surreal. How did we get here?

JAMES FALLOWS: There is something that is constant in American political life, which we're seeing the current, you know, incarnation of, and something that actually is different in the shift of the media. I think what is constant is the suspiciousness and suspicions of whoever holds positions of power. I mean, remember when I was a kid, the rumors in my right wing hometown about what John F. Kennedy was doing to conspire with the Pope, and then some even more dire rumors about Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy’s death. And through American history there have always been these thoughts about whoever is in control. What’s different now, I think, is the ability of these thoughts to get a more mainstream hearing than was that case before. You know, when Kennedy or Johnson were being the subject of rumors 40 or 50 years ago, there was Walter Cronkite and there were the editors of Time and Life and there was The New York Times just to say, this is not something we're going to go into. And now with the mixed blessings of a more open media ecology, this is what we have.

BOB GARFIELD: The President spoke for about five minutes, devoting most of that time to ridiculing or upbraiding the press for putting him in the position to even address the subject. Does the press deserve the blame for keeping this rumor top of mind, or when someone like Donald Trump makes it a campaign issue, is the press simply obliged to report what he’s saying?

JAMES FALLOWS: The strongest case you could make for the press having blown this out of proportion would be the following two elements. One is having reported it over the last couple of years as something where reasonable people can disagree. There are people who say the world is round, there are people who say the Earth is flat, and there’s been this presentation of it as if it were a, a seriously contested issue. The other is the current treatment of Donald Trump. I submit that every single member of the political press corps knows that Donald Trump is not going to be the next President of the United States, and so there has been a sort of willing participation in the carnival barkerism to just televise the, the spectacle of Trump making these claims.

BOB GARFIELD: But again you say nothin' new here. ‘Twas ever thus.


BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned John F. Kennedy and the Pope. You alluded to rumors that Lyndon Johnson had been behind the Kennedy assassination. But preposterous rumors about the President go back well before that. Can you give me some examples?

JAMES FALLOWS: In a way, you could say that birtherism now takes America back to its roots. And, and I think many people are familiar with all the, the editorial cartoons of the anti-Lincoln movement during the 1860 election and even after he became President, alleging more or less seriously that he was, in fact, a gorilla, not a, not a human being. And when Andrew Jackson was in the White House, the partisan press then was talking about his own loose morals and those of his wife, which apparently drove his wife to a, a mental breakdown. One of my favorites of these was when Herbert Hoover was President in the late 1920s. [LAUGHS] There was a whole line of argument that, number one, he was a British subject, and, number two, that he had imported Chinese coolie slaves to the White House from his time when, when he was working as an engineer in, in China. So you could say that the mainstreaming of this kind of birther complaint sort of skips over the era of mainstream conventional news of the early 20th century and takes us back to our 18th and 19th century partisan press roots.

BOB GARFIELD: What’s little known about Hoover, though, oddly, is that he was, in fact, 20 percent gorilla.

[JAMES FALLOWS LAUGHS] [LAUGHS] For rumors like this to take hold, it takes a certain willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the public. It’s hard for me to get, once a fact has been demonstrated, for example, the President’s Hawaii birth, how the rumors can stay alive. What is it about the American body politic that makes it so intermittently irrational?

JAMES FALLOWS: When it comes to political views, actual logic does not really change many people’s views, at least in the short term, that if you look at the way political elections are carried out and the way people make up their minds on large issues, it’s partly logic but it’s also what you could think of as tribalism. It’s loyalties to what the people you like think. And so, it is emotional appeal, the, the music of political life, discordant as it may sometimes be.

BOB GARFIELD: I got to tell you, Jim, I was loathe to do this segment on the grounds of giving more airing to ridiculous rumor embraced by a fringe of American political life. But [LAUGHS] in the last poll, approximately half of registered Republican voters believed that the President was not born in the United States. And we had already long since seen proof that the rumor was false. So what happens next? What’s your best guess for whether this simply creates another wrinkle in the conspiracy, probably involving forgery, I guess?

JAMES FALLOWS: You cannot rationally believe anymore that Barack Obama was born in Kenya or someplace outside of the United States, but many people, I suspect, still will believe that. So I guess the main thing I can hope is that such mainstream media as we have will be shamed out of further coverage of what Donald Trump or whoever follows him might claim on this point. The underlying fact that there is a lot of resistance among some part of our population to the idea of Obama’s background, i.e., the first non-white president occupying the White House, I think there’s going to be resistance to that, and it affects his time in office. Mainly, we can hope that most of the media will behave differently about this issue from this time on.

BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, well, don't wish your life away. Jim. [LAUGHS] Thanks -


BOB GARFIELD: - as always.

JAMES FALLOWS: My pleasure. Thank you, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We're not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.

BOB GARFIELD: There the President was, live on national TV, to produce his original birth certificate. The networks had broken into regular programming for the latest debunking of the birther lunacy, which was like breaking in to report on the debunking of alchemy. Quite the conspiracy, this birther caper, which imagines the uncanny prescience and criminality of the extended Obama family, Kapiolani Hospital, the local newspaper, the State of Hawaii and a clairvoyant newborn. If baby Barack’s future had been so magically foretold by such neonatal ministrations, he wouldn't be the President of the United States. He'd be Jesus. So why do the mainstream media take the bait from the Donald Trumps of the world? Why do they add oxygen to the fires of political cynicism and stupidity? If they simply ignored this nonsense, wouldn't the story just flicker out, once and for all? Well, first of all, no, it wouldn't. In the Internet world, and the FOX News Channel world, the mainstream media aren't the arbiters of what stories live or die. But beyond that, notwithstanding the President’s digs at the press corps, the media have nothing here to be ashamed of. They didn't seize on the birther story because they regarded it as unsettled. They did so mainly to foster evaluation of supposed presidential hopeful Donald Trump, and of elected officials who keep doubt alive by framing the President’s birth as a matter of belief, not of fact. When Speaker of the House John Boehner says, “I take the President at his word,” that slyly leaves open the possibility that the President is lying. So Obama shouldn't be ridiculing the messenger here. If anything, the President owes the press a debt of gratitude. If he wants the public to distinguish a responsible leader from a carnival barker, someone has to document the barking.