How wacky these birthers. Imagine their premise: The parents of Barack Obama, having just brought an infant into the wilds of Kenya, cleverly plan ahead 40 years or so and conspire to make it appear he was born in the United States on August 4, 1961, thereby taking the first baby steps — literally — toward the presidency.
Wacky, indeed. But how many of us either have lingering suspicions or know someone who has suspicions about that day in Dallas in 1963? These conspiracy theories are persistent, and hard to wring out of the national consciousness.
Let me take a moment to salute the persistence of the birthers and their champion du jour, Donald Trump, who may not believe a word of it but who has managed to leverage it into a frenzy of free publicity.
I have to admit: When Donald Trump says he has his people on the ground in Hawaii delving into the real circumstances of Obama’s birth, I have a few pangs of envy. What an assignment: Liberal bias or not, what investigative journalist wouldn’t want to find the smoking gun that would prove that Obama isn’t what most of us have believed all these many years?
Could it be, as Trump has suggested, that Obama’s American mother and Kenyan father, seeking the advantages American citizenship would confer on their child, fabricated the news of their child’s birth in Honolulu and corroborated the event by planting a birth announcement in the daily paper?
Some argue that it’s not so farfetched. Obama’s parents may not have had any dreams of their son becoming president. They might simply have wanted him to be American-born to maximize his chances of making it big. Or perhaps the real reason Obama doesn’t cough up his original birth certificate is because it lists his religion as Muslim.
Doesn’t that little part of the brain that begins to click when someone mentions the grassy knoll also rev up at the thought of a prototypical tiger mom rearranging a few facts of life to transplant her first born son’s point of arrival halfway around the world?
But for me the conspiracy theory surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy lost its steam when I paid a visit to the Texas Book Depository in Dallas. For even a lone gunman on the fifth floor of that building, less than the distance from home plate to the pitcher’s mound above the sidewalk, Kennedy was a sitting duck.
As for the faking of Obama’s birth, my enthusiasm for that chase was deflated by a single image of a news clipping from the Honolulu paper showing the news of Obama’s birth. The future president’s birth announcement was not “an ad,” as Trump likes to call it, nor was it an isolated social announcement that some aggressive mother might have dropped off at a newspaper office. Rather it was an unadorned statement of fact sandwiched in among a few dozen other births announced at the same time.
I saw that image and flashed back to the mid-1970s when I was typing up those exact same type of birth announcements provided to the weekly newspapers in town by the Princeton Medical Center. Could someone have tried to sneak an interloper’s name into that mix? Sure. Would we have noticed such an irregularity? You bet. In fact, of the several score of birth listings I painstakingly typed up nearly 40 years ago, there was a single extraordinary day I still remember.
Before I explain that one, let me salute Donald Trump for pursuing the birther line. Ingenuity and showmanship are the hallmarks of Trump’s brand. For the Donald, the birther argument is a great distraction for a man who is running certainly for more publicity and higher ratings and only possibly for president of the United States.
The birther bull is a wonderful distraction for a man who has no vision of how to stimulate the economy, create jobs, cut the deficit, or handle a foreign policy crisis. Although he has perfected the strategy of never answering an interviewer’s question, he would find that less effective when reporters and other candidates bore in on him if he does decide to run. He got a taste of that when he dismissed Obama’s handling of OPEC. What would he do? “I’d look them in the eye and tell them the party is over,” the Donald declared.
Trump is doing well in the polls in part, the analysts say, because the people “know” him. Certainly his name is more recognizable than Tim Pawlenty (the former governor of Minnesota), but I’m not sure the public really knows Trump. I would like to be at an Iowa caucus when the Bible Belt farmers ponder Trump’s pro-choice past, his three marriages (beginning with Ivana, three years younger, to Marla, 17 years younger, and now to Melania, 24 years younger), and four bankruptcies, the most recent in 2009. And someone will dig up the exact Trump quotation that I paraphrase here: “When you owe the bank $1 million you’re in trouble. When you owe the bank $500 million the bank is in trouble.”
So the birther talk is a wonderful sideshow for this consummate showman, and part of his sleight of hand is to question the bias of the media: “I can’t understand why the press keeps denying it.”
I can explain my lack of enthusiasm by looking back at that long list of births in the Honolulu paper, and imagining the clerk who had to type them in at the hospital or the reporter who had to format them for the typesetters in the composing room. I did that for a while in the 1970s at the Town Topics. Once a week I had to take the computer print out from hospital and convert it to the newspaper’s particular style: “Sons were born to John and Mary Doe, August 4, etc.” All the boys born on the same day were listed in one phrase so that the date did not have to be repeated.
After the boys came the girls. Twins or triplets would get a paragraph of their own.
But on one occasion the routine was broken, and I remember it to this day. I slogged through the births, a 20-minute exercise, and handed the finished work over to Don Stuart, the owner and publisher. An hour later, with the Tuesday deadline looming, he came back, looking grim. He had somehow lost the copy, and explained that I would have to do it all over.
I cranked out another version, as close as anything could come to identical in those days before copy and paste commands. Realizing that Stuart felt worse than I did, I tried to put a bright spin on the ordeal when I turned in the new copy. “No problem,” I told Stuart. “This time around I really made it sing.”
I wish I could be equally excited about the birther theories.