“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that ain’t so.” – Mark Twain
OK, I admit it. I don’t need more evidence that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961, two years after Aloha land became the 50th state. I am convinced the president is native born and therefore qualified to exercise the executive power of the government under the Constitution. It is a closed case for me, but apparently not for many so called “birthers” and even, at last count, eleven members of Congress who are sponsoring legislation requiring presidential candidates to produce their birth certificates.
All of this talk of birth certificates comes hard on the heels of the persistent rumor that Obama is a secret Muslim.
What’s going on here? A Constitutional crisis? An updated version of UFO sitings?
None of that. The Obama “stories” are, I submit, in league with a long, colorful and frequently disquieting chapter in American presidential history. It is the chapter where some Americans never quite get to the point of accepting the person in the White House. Presidential history is full of “facts” from the fringe that, if true, would surely “disqualify” the offender in the Oval Office.
The president in modern times most aggressively vilified in this way was surely Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As George Wolfskill and John A. Hudson document in their book – All but the People – Franklin D. Roosevelt and His Critics – FDR was – pick your poison – mentally ill, unable to handle the strain of office due to his polio, a shadow Communist (or Fascist), a warmonger and a Jew.
A contemptible collection of crackpots, including the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin who commanded an audience that Glenn Beck would envy, and a southern demagogue by the name of Gerald L.K. Smith, rumor mongered the anti-FDR lies constantly. As Wolfskill and Hudson note, Smith’s Christian Nationalist Crusade mailed out thousands of copies of a phony Roosevelt genealogy, purporting to “prove” FDR’s Jewish ancestry, during the presidential campaign of 1936. A footnote read: “Every sensible Christian and loyal American will fight the campaign of Leftist, Communists, Jews and Internationalists to return the Roosevelt dynasty to power.”
Roosevelt won that 1936 election, by the way, in an historic landslide that only convinced his critics that he was determined in a second term to advance not the “New Deal,” but the “Jew Deal.”
In earlier times, the detractors of President John Adams contended he harbored secret ambitions to declare himself King and, despite Adams role in the American Revolution, as president he was determined to tighten bonds with England.
Andrew Jackson came to believe that the death of his beloved wife, Rachel, was a direct result of the vicious attacks directed at him, but aimed at her. One charge – the Jacksons were bigamists.
More recently, John F. Kennedy had to counter the widespread belief, advanced effectively by his political opponents, that his election as the first Catholic president was sure to install the Bishop of Rome – the Pope – as White House chief of staff.
George W. Bush had to contend with conspiracy theorists in the wake of September 11th and some Americans will never get over his “illegitimate election” by a 5-4 vote of the United States Supreme Court.
“Politics ain’t bean bag,” as they say, and for sure the game has always been played as a full contact sport. Good advice to any politician: Don’t climb in the ring if you can’t take a punch and a low blow has always been part of our politics. You want fair play – go to a cricket match
Still, the speed and viral nature of today’s rumor spreading, fueled by the Internet, 24 hour cable news, and bloviators like Lou Dobbs and Beck is nearly impossible to fathom or refute. Spreading rumors in the age of instant communication makes “old media” reporting, the kind that actually seeks out the facts, even more important as an antidote to the nonsense.
But, there is another old adage – the truth never catches up with the allegation – that keeps theses stories alive for days, weeks and beyond.
Considering all the rascals who have occupied the White House – from a secret Jew to a secret non-citizen – it is a real wonder the Republic has survived at all.