Race flickers in and out of Berg’s conversation. He says he’s a lifetime member of the NAACP, but that Democrats were hell-bent to get a black president and that he never knows how black people are going to respond when they see his card, Obamacrimes.com. Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race left him cold. “That was the one where he threw his grandmother under the bus. His white grandmother,” Berg said, referring to Obama’s statement that his own grandmother feared blacks in the streets of Honolulu.
Last December, Phil Berg held a press conference at the National Press Club and met up with a California dentist-cum-attorney named Orly Taitz. With her blonde helmet hair, heavy eye makeup, and baton twirler’s figure, Taitz has been called the lost Gabor sister by Jon Stewart. Taitz got here by way of Russia and Israel. She likens Obama to Shabbatai Tzvi, the false messiah of Jewish history, and the godless Soviets she’d escaped.
“I’ve been there, done that. There’s a real danger of coup d’état if somebody who is unlawful takes over the government,” she says.
The campaign to delegitimize the president was burgeoning even as Obama was inaugurated. “The right went from zero to 100 in about three weeks,” Eric Boehlert of Media Matters says. For all its loopy free association, the movement was following a historical playbook. Clinton provides the most recent model for how a margin could catalyze the mainstream. Remember that the Arkansas troopers had gotten together in that first spring, 1993, to talk about Clinton’s past. The Travel Office fiasco was in the spring, and Whitewater started to percolate. Vince Foster died in July, and the story never went away.
When Taitz attended a machine-gun shoot in Knob Creek, Kentucky, it seemed an echo of the militia movement of the Clinton nineties. For his part, Phil Berg seems eager to channel Ken Starr. Sitting at a lunch place in Philly, Berg dreams about deposing the president and exposing him as a fraud.
“I’d try to lay a foundation. First of all, ‘Where were you born?’ Some people say, ‘How can you ask him that question? He doesn’t know when he was born! He was a little baby!’ I say, please—I don’t remember being born, exactly, but … I know I was born in a certain place, a certain hospital. And we’re not dealing with a stupid individual. He knows what’s going on, he knows he’s not legit. So I would lay the foundation.”
His fantasy questions get more elaborate. How did you afford to go to Pakistan during college? What passport did you carry? Who financed you?
At Berg’s side was another birther, Henry, whom Berg had saved from jail in Family Court that morning on allegations of failing to pay his former wife $8,000 in child support. Henry is in construction. He’s lost work to immigrants but has a ready smile. I asked him why is he into this stuff.
“I was in the Navy for six years. I caught the tail end of the Vietnam War … I did my six years … There’s a million other guys out there like me. Well, to have somebody just walk in and throw the Constitution on the ground like it’s a piece of crap. What are we fighting for if someone from another country can walk in here, take over the damn presidency, and none of us has the stones to stand up for it?”
Lest there’s any doubt about birthers being part of the base, the Republican National Committee was buying a mailing list from the organization, World Net Daily, that was putting up billboards asking, WHERE’S THE BIRTH CERTIFICATE? World Net Daily editor Joseph Farah concedes that Obama was probably born in Honolulu but speculates that his parents weren’t the parents he says he had. Farah points to a purported record he’s put online showing that Obama’s putative mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, then 18, enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle on August 19, 1961. “How do you give birth on August 4 and wind up in class fifteen days later? It’s inexplicable. The flight from Hawaii to Seattle in 1961 took nine hours. An extraordinary story. Implausible.”
At least Farah is up-front about the hatred. “I don’t like Obama. I make no secret of it,” Farah says. “I don’t think he has a redeeming quality in his soul. I’d like to see him turned out of office as soon as possible. We don’t know who this guy is. He’s a total mystery. His life story as told in his autobiography could be a total sham.”
Another Farah contributor was onto the autobiography as a sham. Jack Cashill, a Kansas City writer, was so blown away by the writing of the book he did not believe that Obama had done it himself. He became convinced that former Weatherman Bill Ayers had written it and that this undermined Obama’s central achievement prior to the presidency: as a wordsmith. Being a writer, I found Cashill’s theory at least plausible: “But JFK had help, didn’t he? Didn’t Ted Sorensen write Profiles in Courage?”