Obama’s release of birth certificate does little to allay ‘birther’ fears

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the findings of a New York Times/CBS News poll. The information in the story has been corrected.


President Obama addresses the press corps Wednesday in the White House breifing room. The White House released a long form version of his birth certificate earlier that morning. (Brendan Smialowski/GETTY IMAGES)

It proves nothing. It could be fake. It’s all so fishy. Aren’t there multiple layers on the scanned document released by the White House? Why did it take so long to produce?

The people who do not believe that President Obama was born in the United States showed Wednesday that a good conspiracy theory is like a coal mine fire: something that can’t be doused in a day.

The president, pestered by “birthers” since he began running for the White House, finally felt compelled to try to put an end to the controversy, providing his original birth certificate for the first time.

“Yes, in fact, I was born in Hawaii, August 4, 1961, in Kapiolani Hospital,” Obama told the White House press corps, before going on to demand an end to the “silliness” about his birthplace that he fears has distracted the country from urgent policy matters involving wars, the federal debt and the economy.

But he added: “I know that there’s going to be a segment of people for which, no matter what we put out, this issue will not be put to rest.”

Correct. The birthers, far from chastised, found themselves newly energized and freshly suspicious.

“It raises far more questions than it answers,” said Joseph Farah, editor in chief of WorldNetDaily and birther extraordinaire, almost breathless between media interviews.

Farah, whose online publication has run hundreds of articles over the past couple of years questioning Obama’s citizenship, professed delight at the latest development. So did real estate tycoon Donald Trump, who has found that raising questions about Obama’s legitimacy is political jet fuel for someone pondering a presidential run.

Trump said he felt “honored” to have played a role in the White House’s move, and then he nimbly skipped to his next demand — the release of the president’s college transcript, which he thinks will show that Obama was no star student.

The dispassionate observer might think that Wednesday’s production of the birth certificate could not fail to bury forever the carefully manufactured controversy of the president’s origin. The facts are now as official as facts can possibly get: Barack Hussein Obama II was born at 7:24 p.m. on Aug. 4, 1961, on the island of Oahu in the state of Hawaii.

But it is the nature of a conspiracy theory that all information must pass through a very discerning, yet simple, filter. Information that is confirmational is accepted; that which is contradictory is rejected.

Conspiracy theories have the self-sustaining gift of ramification: They sprout new tendrils, like a mad vine that has invaded from another continent. For the committed conspiracy theorist, there is always another angle to explore, another anomaly to scrutinize.

Orly Taitz, a prominent Obama critic who has questioned his birthplace, told Talking Points Memo that she thinks the newly released document is questionable because Obama’s father’s race is listed as “African.”

“It sounds like it would be written today, in the age of political correctness, and not in 1961, when they wrote white or Asian or ‘Negro,’ ” Taitz said.

At one hotbed of birtherism, the certificate appeased no one.

“You know as well as I do that you can produce a fraudulent form,” said Sharon Guthrie, legislative director for Texas state Rep. Leo Berman (R), who has introduced a bill that would require that anyone running in Texas for president provide an original birth certificate proving American citizenship.

Obama’s birth was announced in two local newspapers, and his campaign released a short form of his birth certificate when he ran for office. But the long form of the document remained under wraps in a vault until the president dispatched a lawyer last week to retrieve it.

Guthrie argued that the document Obama produced on Wednesday is not a birth certificate but merely a “certificate of live birth,” which she considers something different.

Said Farah of WorldNetDaily: “I think we should do due diligence there and examine it before we jump to conclusions that, because a government official handed something out, it is legit.”

He said that even if the document is real, it raises questions about Obama’s eligibility to be president. Farah contended that, because Obama’s father was from Africa, the president may have had “dual citizenship” and therefore may not meet the definition of a “natural-born” citizen, the eligibility requirement in the Constitution. He suggested that it is necessary to revisit the intentions of the Framers.

He added: “This has never been an issue exclusively about where Barack Obama was born.”

But it was certainly the major issue. Obama critic Jerome Corsi has written a book, slated for a May 17 release, titled “Where’s the Birth Certificate? The Case That Barack Obama Is Not Eligible to Be President.” Corsi, who also writes for WorldNetDaily, will not be giving interviews until the book is on shelves, according to a spokesman for the Web site.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Wednesday night that the birthers use “coded and covert rhetoric to stir up racial fears,” as part of a broader attempt to delegitimize Obama and push back against civil rights and equal rights.

“It’s a code word: ‘He’s not one of us,’ ” Jackson said, giving his view of the birther mind-set. “ ‘He wasn’t born here. He’s not a Christian. He’s a Muslim, we don’t worship the same god.’ It’s a very coded designation to try undermine his legitimacy.”

Jackson added: “ ‘Birther’ is a kind label for a much deeper and toxic movement.”

The birther controversy has elements common to many other conspiracy theories in recent decades, such as the belief that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were an inside job facilitated by the U.S. government, and the theory that the government has been covering up the presence of extra­terrestrial visitors.

These theories do not always find a purchase on one distinct portion of the ideological spectrum. What they have in common is the emotional investment of the believers: The theory becomes not merely a hunch or a notion but rather a core belief that is part of the believer’s identity. The person isn’t going to abandon the faith simply because a piece of paper surfaces that would seem — to others who are not so invested in the theory — to refute the central notion.

“It’s easier psychologically to come up with a rationalization than it is to admit that you were wrong,” said Ronald Lindsay, president of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry in Amherst, N.Y., publisher of the myth-debunking magazine the Skeptical Inquirer.

“If you have a pre-commitment to a certain point of view, and that point of view is important for your identity — if you are emotionally attached to it — your emotion is going to shape your reasoning process. You’ll be presented with facts, but you’ll find some way to minimize the significance of those fact,” Lindsay said.

People not so invested in the birther point of view may be swayed by the White House’s production of the birth certificate. Recent polling suggests that, before Wednesday, large chunks of the electorate were unconvinced that Obama was born in the United States.

A New York Times/CBS News poll released last week showed broad, continued uncertainty about where Obama was born. Fully 45 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of independents in the poll said he was born in another country, with the percentage of Republicans saying that 13 percentage points higher than it was a year ago.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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