David Maraniss, an associate editor of The Post, is the author of “Barack Obama: The Story” and “First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton.” This is part of an occasional series on the 2012 presidential candidates’ political lives.
There are Obama doubters and haters out there who claim with righteous anger that they are “vetting” the president, something they say the mainstream media never did. Some of them have said that my new biography — unwittingly, they argue, for I am too dumb to understand what my research has unearthed — proves that Barack Obama’s defining memoir is phony and that his entire life is a fraud. My intent is not to defend Obama or his book; he can take care of himself, and I have my own questions about “Dreams From My Father,” which I make clear in my book. But when comparing the liberties Obama took with composite characters and compressed chronology — which he acknowledged in the introduction to his memoir — to the stretches his most virulent detractors have taken in building their various conspiracies, I believe that they are the frauds and fabricators.
Not all of them are “birthers,” but the notion that the president was not born in the United States remains at the epicenter of the anti-Obama mythology. Here is the conspiracy that would have had to exist if Barack Hussein Obama II were not born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Aug. 4, 1961:
First, the local newspapers would have had to have been in on the scheme, because they ran notices of his birth among all the other local births that week. Second, the Immigration and Naturalization Service would have had to have been covering something up, because INS officials were closely tracking Barack Obama Sr. when he was at the University of Hawaii on a student visa from Kenya. They thought that he was a bigamist — which he was, having married a woman in Kenya before coming to the States — and a womanizer, which he also was. INS documents in the weeks and months before and after the son’s birth clearly establish the father’s whereabouts and the birth of his son. Finally, the name of Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann, was unusual enough that doctors and nurses in Honolulu remembered it and her giving birth. One prominent doctor was asked by a young journalist if anything interesting had happened in the medical world that week, and he responded, “Well, Stanley had a baby!”
In tandem with the birther notion comes the idea that Obama is a secret Muslim. His Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango, was Muslim; his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, was Muslim; as a boy he was instructed in Islam at a school in Jakarta; and many of his college friends were Muslim. None of this adds up to Obama being Muslim, except in the minds of conspiratorialists. Obama never met his Kenyan grandfather. After infancy, he spent time with his Kenyan father only once, and in any case Barack Obama Sr. was an atheist. The truth is that Muslims had nothing to do with the rise of the Obamas of Kenya and that conservative evangelical Christians were essential every step of the way.
It was proselytizing Seventh-day Adventists who first came to the Obamas’ villages out near Lake Victoria at the start of the 20th century. They taught English and Western ways to the first wave of young boys from the Luo tribe, including Hussein Onyango. His son, the president’s father, was also educated at a missionary school. Later, as a young adult, Barack Obama Sr. was mentored by a remarkable evangelical Christian, Betty Mooney, whose grandfather was one of the founders of Texas Christian University. Mooney, who went to Kenya in the late 1950s to spread the gospel and literacy, met Obama Sr. in Nairobi and hired him to translate some of her literacy books into the Luo tribal language. She encouraged and helped sponsor his coming to the United States and specifically to the University of Hawaii, where he met Stanley Ann Dunham. One can say that President Obama would not exist except for evangelical Christians.
While living in Jakarta from ages 6 through 9, young Obama temporarily took the last name of his stepfather, Soetoro, for school purposes. He was listed as a Muslim on school documents because students were listed in the religion of their fathers. Lolo was not particularly religious; Stanley Ann was spiritual but not part of any formal religion. For most of his three-plus years in Indonesia, Obama attended a Catholic grade school. When his family moved to a better neighborhood in his final year, he went to the local grade school, one of the best in the city. The central doctrine taught at S.D. Besuki was not Islam but Pancasila, or five principles, of modern Indonesia, which evoked the unity of the islands on the vast archipelago, social justice and a belief in one God. Conservative Muslims detested Pancasila (a Sanskrit word revealing Indonesia’s Hindu heritage), insisting that it was too liberal and open to too many religions and interpretations.
In both the issues of Obama’s birth and of his religion, documents and common sense lead in one direction. Obama’s doubters run the other way: His birth certificates must be fake; his espoused Christianity must be a cover. Another group of right-wing doubters hold on to the notion that Obama is a closet socialist, some sort of Manchurian candidate, an idea that his every move as a pragmatic liberal politician over the past 16 years has utterly disproved. Some others maintain that he was not smart enough to get into Occidental, Columbia and Harvard Law, and too inept to write his own memoir, which one particularly obsessed conspiratorialist claims was penned by the former radical Bill Ayers. What about the well-written letters from Obama that are published in my book? Those, too, must be frauds slipped to me by the Obama administration.
In the introduction to my book, I took note of a sick political culture where “facts are so easily twisted for political purposes and where strange armies of ideological pseudo-historians roam the biographical fields in search of stray ammunition.” That sentence is now cited on right-wing Web sites as evidence that I hold them in contempt. True enough, one of the few accurate things that I’ve read from them. I do hold some of them in contempt, not because of their politics, nor because of their dislike of Obama. Political debate and disagreement are the lifeblood of American democracy. No, I hold them in contempt for the way they disregard facts and common sense and undermine the role of serious history as they concoct conspiracy theories that portray the president as dangerous, alien and less than American.
What drives them? Some of it can be attributed to the give-and-take of today’s harsh ideological divide. Some of it can be explained by the way misinformation spreads virally to millions of like-minded people, reinforcing preconceptions. And some of it, I believe, arises out of fears of demographic changes in this country, and out of racism.