By Liza Mundy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA, Calif.
The dental office of Orly Taitz, DDS, Esq., is in a low-slung complex in a quiet planned community in Orange County, alongside an assortment of small businesses and solo practitioners. The practice, Appealing Dentistry, is busy this morning. In the waiting room are a woman with no dental insurance and a boy with three cavities, and the phone is ringing off the hook with dentists eager to fill a job opening.
"Crowns, bridges, veneers, root canals -- you need to be able to do root canals and molars," the receptionist is telling one caller. And now here is Taitz herself, a bit late, entering in a flurry of energy and apologies to consult with a colleague, then suggesting to a reporter that they go somewhere to chat. Despite many pressing concerns on the dentistry front, Taitz is eager to talk about her crusade to prove that the president of the United States is an impostor.
Emerging into the dry Southern California sunshine, Taitz -- dentist, lawyer, wife of a software executive, mother of three and a leading proponent of the so-called birther campaign against President Obama -- walks briskly past her law office, which is conveniently beside the dental practice. Inside the law office is a modest conference room with a table, eight chairs, a couple of abstract paintings and a houseplant. It is here that Taitz dreams of deposing the U.S. president, proving that he is a citizen not of this country but of Kenya, maybe, or possibly Indonesia, perhaps even -- who knows? -- that he is secretly controlled by Saudi Arabia.
"My children are so excited . . . that the president of the United States will have to appear in Mom's office in Rancho Santa Margarita," says Taitz, whose English is richly Russian-accented; she grew up in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.
And if the conference room proves too small to accommodate the presidential entourage and she has to travel to Washington to question the man she refers to as a "usurper," that's okay. Taitz will fly pretty much anywhere to make her argument. The ends of the Earth, one senses, would not be too far away.
It's a lot to take on, but she has help; assisting with her legal filings is Charles E. Lincoln III, a disbarred lawyer and self-described "anarchist." Leaving the office, Lincoln gets in the back seat and Taitz maneuvers her Lexus through the tidy "Real Housewives"-type landscape to a bakery with outdoor seating. For five hours she will discuss her legal crusade, eventually moving to lunch at T.G.I. Friday's.
Problem is, dentists keep interrupting her narrative. They have found her cellphone number. And they are desperate. The economy is that bad. "Can you please call the office?" she begs one of them. To another: "Could you fax me?" And "I'm in the middle of something," she says, answering another call, not unkindly.
* * *
Surreal as her multi-tasking effort may seem, Taitz is a serious player in the apparently unsinkable birther movement, or, as its proponents prefer to call it, the movement to question Obama's "eligibility" to hold office. She herself objects to the term "birther," arguing in a court document that it is "pejorative."
Taitz has drafted voluminous court pleadings, filing at least five Obama-related cases; a hearing on a California case took place yesterday. In addition to making appearances on radio and television, she blogs and travels the country speaking. She has drummed up supporters at a gun show; joined "tea party" demonstrations against taxation; shouted at, and been shouted at by, MSNBC hosts.
All of which is not to say that her effort is going well. In September, U.S. District Judge Clay D. Land dismissed a Georgia case that Taitz brought on behalf of a military doctor, Connie Rhodes, which held that Rhodes should be spared deployment to Iraq because Obama is not constitutionally qualified to be commander in chief. More than just rejecting it, he excoriated it.
"Unlike in Alice in Wonderland, simply saying something is so does not make it so," Land wrote scathingly in his order dismissing the action. Singling out Taitz for criticism, he accused her of using the legal system to further a political agenda.
Taitz, breathtakingly, reacted by accusing the judge of treason and comparing herself to Nelson Mandela. She fired off a response that suggested the judge was bowing to "political pressure" and "external control." Land promptly issued another order requiring Taitz to tell him why he should not fine her $10,000 as a sanction for her misconduct. Today, a copy of that order lies on the floor of her car.
Ultimately, she would withdraw as Rhodes's counsel but continue to seethe.
"That's the most ridiculous argument that I've ever heard," she says of Land's comment that Obama's political opponents had ample opportunity to challenge his birth record. "Nobody has seen proper documents. Period."
Another breathtaking statement, or rather misstatement. After initially trying to ignore the controversy, Obama's staff has indeed provided an official record showing that the president was born in Hawaii. The document is a computer-generated official certification of live birth attesting to the fact that Barack Hussein Obama II was born on Aug. 4, 1961, in Honolulu. The director of Hawaii's Department of Health also has stated, rather wearily, that she has viewed the underlying vital records and that they are valid.
But never mind! The myth of ineligibility has embedded itself in the consciousness of determined adversaries, chief among them Taitz, who in her allegation-filled but congenial interview explains why she wants Obama to surrender the vital records that underlie the computer-generated document. She has developed a scenario whereby Obama's American mother gave birth in Kenya, his father's native country, then persuaded bureaucrats to falsify his records and ease him back into this country. She also conjectures that he may be a citizen of Indonesia, where Obama lived for a time after his mother remarried.
Taitz is pinning her hopes on the California case, this one on behalf of a slew of plaintiffs, some of them former members of the military -- a central thread running through her filings is the idea that soldiers owe no allegiance to an illegitimate commander -- and assorted fulminators and fringe players, including Wiley Drake, a pastor who has said that he prays for Obama's death. Drake and another plaintiff have now hired a new lawyer, because alliances within the movement are a fractious thing. Taitz -- who says that it's "wrong" to pray for the president's death -- is also in a legal tussle with Philip Berg, a Pennsylvania lawyer whom, some observers say, she has edged aside to become the most visible face of the movement.
If that's true, it's easy to see how it might have happened. If you were the producer of an opinionated news show and wanted to book a birther, whom would you choose? A nondescript Pennsylvanian or an excitable Moldovan American lawyer-dentist described by Lincoln, her assistant, as a "fierce blonde" reminiscent of the warrior goddess Athena? Easy call! Today Taitz, 49, is wearing white high-heeled slingbacks; bare legs; a white skirt; black and white shirt; enormous eyelashes; and her characteristic air of charming but ferocious tenacity, part Meg Ryan, part Madame Defarge.
"He is lying about his identity, he is hiding his whole identity, this is dangerous!" says Taitz, looking eagerly toward a judicial ruling on the U.S. government's motion to dismiss the California case. She is hopeful that this judge will let her go ahead.
* * *
It is, perhaps, a harmless quest, no different from that of umpteen fantasy-driven litigants cluttering up the American court system -- for somebody who distrusts government, Taitz has used a lot of its resources -- were it not for the question of how the word "usurper" affects the national psyche when directed at the first African American president. If nothing else, the doubters have put themselves on the public's radar. Eight in 10 Americans in a July Pew poll said that they had heard "a lot" or "a little" about the contention that Obama was not born in the United States and is ineligible for the presidency.
Taitz is also on the radar of militia groups, whom she sometimes addresses on her blog; in one posting, she urged "state militias" to descend upon southern U.S. borders and help check those arriving for signs of swine flu virus; in another, she called on "citizen's militia" to protect people from being rounded up by government forces using swine flu as a pretext. The question of her broader influence "is our main concern," says Robert Haggard, a frequent poster to Politijab, a Web site whose members include legal experts tracking Taitz with horrified fascination. "We don't believe that Orly herself is dangerous, the problem is, she is attracting these people who are, and have a history of being so."
At a minimum, organizations who monitor extremist groups say that the fantasy of Obama's ineligibility is now a central tenet. "The birther conspiracy itself is now totally widespread among military and paramilitary [militia] groups and new, what we would call quote-unquote 'patriot' groups, which are groups that are virulently anti-government," says Heidi Beirich, director of research at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Beirich says that a popular conspiracy theory among such groups is that the government is going to round up citizens and put them in camps operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
And sure enough, no conversation with Taitz is complete without a reference to the "600" camps that she believes FEMA has constructed to keep dissident citizens corralled. FEMA camps are only one of her anxieties. Communist and totalitarian regimes are another. "It is extremely important to ensure that the people of this country don't lose their freedoms, because if they do, this country will turn into a dictatorship, just like the communist Soviet Union, just like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran, or Saddam Hussein's Iraq, or Kim Jong Il's North Korea."
"You're sounding awfully political right now," warns Lincoln at one point. This is the sort of talk that judges could criticize her for. "And I think that's a dangerous way to go."
But repressive regimes are a conversational well into which she keeps dipping. In her early 20s, Taitz, who says she is of Jewish heritage, emigrated to Israel and lived there for several years. The man who would become her husband, visiting from the United States, asked her to marry him on their second date, something that didn't surprise her -- she says, blushing -- because "he wasn't the first one" who had asked. Some observers believe the animating cause of her crusade is an anti-Muslim bias. She disagrees, saying "I have nothing against any religion." But some of her remarks help fuel such criticisms, as when she mentions hearing rumors of a purported video in which "Obama has made statements that were anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, and very pro-Palestinian, pro-Arabic." She says she also heard an Internet rumor that the royal family of Saudi Arabia helped support Obama's education. "I'm questioning: Are there any strings attached? I don't know."
Ultimately, her rhetoric is laced with a suspicion that Obama may be an agent for a foreign power, a modern Manchurian candidate. This is why she wants not only his vital records but his academic ones. "Would you be willing to go with me to Obama and ask him . . . [to] release all of the proper records, your school records, your enrollment records from all those college applications, and financial aid records, which would show whether he was enrolled as a foreign exchange student from Indonesia or Kenya?"
There are those who say that even if Obama were to provide every last record down to dry-cleaning receipts, no proof could satisfy birther proponents. In Taitz's case, there's what she calls "a two-prong test." Bucking the common view that "natural born citizen" -- the constitutional requirement for a U.S. president -- means, generally speaking, born on American soil, she argues that to be president a person must not only be born here but must also be the child of parents who were both U.S. citizens at the time of his birth. She allows that her decidedly non-mainstream interpretation would knock out her two older sons, born when she had only a green card, before she became a U.S. citizen.
One might argue that her extra super-duper burden of proof has a racial dimension to it, and Taitz herself says she has been accused of racism. She says there is no basis to the charge. "Just because he happens to be African American, he does not get a free pass."
She also dismisses the concern that this president might be uniquely vulnerable to violent extremism. "There's no reason to believe that that's going to happen," she says. "There is a lot of protection -- the Secret Service. I think there is a much higher chance of violence against me than against" the president.
Violence against me.
That last answer may offer some insight into why Orly Taitz is in this fight. Up to now, she says, she was "never really politically active" and her community involvement consisted of volunteering as a teacher's helper, supporting the arts and serving as an officer of a homeowner association.
The motivation for her zeal could be, as she suggests, residual trauma from growing up in a totalitarian regime where, as she often points out, judges were "puppets" of the state. It could be the PayPal button at the top of her Web site, which does bring in contributions, Taitz says, though not enough to cover her expenses. It could be a combination of naivete, true belief and the willful credulity that leads a person to prefer wild and interesting Internet rumors over mundane truths. It could be that she is a rabble-rouser by nature. As a preschooler, she says, she organized a "borscht riot" among classmates after noticing that the teachers were getting more sour cream than the children in their beet soup.
* * *
Back at the office, things are still busy: Dentists have been faxing résumés all day, there are patients in the waiting room, and Charles Lincoln is printing out a court pleading.
The phone keeps ringing. It's not just dentists, but also journalists and sympathizers and concerned citizens. That might also be an explanation: the calls, the adrenaline rush of speeches and media engagements, the fact that at one court hearing, Taitz marvels, people applauded. She is in the limelight. And although she criticizes the mainstream media, she calls after the interview to see when this article will run. So she can flag it on her Web site.