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Who Is Barack Obama?

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Obama protesters from rallies in New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., over the last few months.  

Hofstadter was famously wrong. Angry crowds played a large role in our unfolding history. Mobs created movements, then establishment figures channeled the anger into conventional politics, moving the line in their direction. Beginning in the sixties, sympathetic elder William F. Buckley managed to sort out the nuts, and by 1980 ideological conservatives captured the White House under Ronald Reagan and dominated the next era in politics.

Now the mob was back out on the street, in full throat, sounding a little like the New Left of the sixties. Glenn Beck had used socialist and communist designs in his own militant logos (the L.A. Times reported), and Rush Limbaugh railed against the “state-run media.” That old cry on the left, “What is reality?”—as if the consensus were something manufactured by corporate tools—had been picked up by the right wing.

Considering all the free-floating fury against our first black president, it seems a historical accident that Obama did not get Swiftboated in 2008. Indeed, one of the central claims of the new right is that adoring media failed to vet Obama and so they are doing the job now. The Jeremiah Wright story basically went away after Obama’s March 2008 race speech in Philadelphia, even though Hillary and Bill Clinton plucked at the stranger chord—Obama wasn’t a Muslim “as far as I know,” Hillary said. John McCain was himself moved by the ascension of an African-American and restrained nativist resentment toward his opponent. Even as he chose Sarah Palin, McCain held her back, a sideshow, albeit one that often overshadowed the main event and prefigured this summer’s circus. That season of reasonableness may have left the Obama administration too confident in its ability to ignore the smears.

The questions about Obama’s legitimacy exploded this July after angry people at town halls held up their own birth certificates and challenged Obama to produce his own, and Lou Dobbs, who runs a strongly anti-immigration show on CNN, picked up the claim. The birthers were born. But the thread has been with us over a year. Back in spring 2008, nascent Obama haters found Obama too exotic to believe, and began looking around for anything they could get against him. One rumor went that his real middle name was Muhammad.

“We got e-mail queries—‘Has Obama produced a birth certificate?’—back in the spring during the primaries,” says Jackson of Factcheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Center. “I blame the whole birther movement on bad PR by the Obama campaign. They really bungled it.”

In June 2008, the campaign posted a scan of a document called a “Certification of Live Birth” for Barack Hussein Obama II that the Hawaii Department of Health had generated the year before so that Obama could get on ballots nationwide. But it wasn’t a good scan, and the campaign blacked out the number on the document (manipulating it, Jackson says) and not showing the raised seal. The haters said it was a forgery. “We kept pinging [the Obama campaign] about it,” Jackson says, but not for two months did the campaign invite Factcheck.org to its Chicago headquarters to photograph the document and offer much better pictures online.

Not that it made much difference. Where was the vault copy of the birth certificate showing mother and father’s names? What about the height and weight of the baby? “A video of Obama being born in Honolulu with Don Ho playing ukulele in the background would not dispel a thing with these people,” says John Berryhill, an Obama supporter who fights the smears online. “Any additional statement or clarification is a ‘contradiction’ or leaves ‘unanswered questions.’ These are very concrete thinkers who are so fixated on a conclusion that you might as well try to figure out a strategy for converting the pope to Islam. It’s just not going to happen.”

The Philadelphia lawyer is an Obot, the name that Obama haters have given to the Obama supporters who jump into their chat rooms with contradictory evidence. Oddly, a good number of the Obama haters were Pumas—Party Unity My Ass Democrats, who were angered that Hillary had lost the nomination. By the time of Obama’s nomination in Denver, a former Hillary supporter, a Philadelphia attorney named Phil Berg urged on by a Texas investigator who goes by Linda Starr, sued Democratic officials, saying they had a duty to determine whether Obama was a natural-born citizen, or NBC. Berg saw “overwhelming” evidence that Obama was born in Kenya and has accused Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi of “aiding and abetting an enemy.”

What did it matter that two Hawaii newspapers had printed Obama’s birth announcement in August 1961? They’d been hoodooed. The unreality taps into fierce currents, unease about dark-skinned immigrants and worldliness. “I believe he is a secret Muslim,” Starr said. She owed it to her children to expose this, because her ancestors came here before the Revolution. “I believe this country is in my DNA … It is my responsibility not to lose this country on my watch.”


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