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What Are the Birthers Really After?

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Friday, August 07, 2009

On Aug. 4, President Barack Obama celebrated the anniversary of his birth, an event that occurred 48 years ago in the state of Hawaii. This is an indisputable fact, as sane critics on the right, such as the editors of the National Review and the veteran pundit Patrick Buchanan, acknowledge.

And yet there is a significant minority, especially within the Republican Party, that fervently insists otherwise.

Why this obsession over Obama's birthplace persists is a question that evokes disturbing answers.

It was probably inevitable that the election of the first African-American president, a man of mixed racial heritage whose father was Kenyan and whose middle name is Hussein, would stir resentments among the farthest right-wing fringe of American society. There are still people, often clustered in groups that falsely claim to be "conservative" and "patriotic," who have never accepted the social advances that we have made in the years since Obama's birth -- which occurred in an era when the marriage of his white mother and black father remained illegal in some states.

But if the Obama presidency provokes a certain kind of old bigot, it is also true that the spinning of conspiracy theories, outlandish myths and paranoid fantasies is nothing new in presidential politics. Not long after the Clintons entered the White House in 1993, they became the targets of a stream of poisonous lies, emanating from many of the same sources that are defaming the Obamas today.

The same "news sites," notably Newsmax.com and WorldNetDaily, and the same right-wing radio personalities, from Rush Limbaugh downward, sought to convince the public that the Clintons were serial killers, drug kingpins, traitors and communists, bent on dissolving American sovereignty into a socialist world government. Those wild accusations were part of a broader right-wing strategy to discredit and curtail Bill Clinton's presidency.

If not a "vast right-wing conspiracy," as Hillary Clinton famously called it, the network behind this effort was indeed very large and extremely determined, and seems to have inflicted permanent damage on our political discourse as well as the mental health of the conservative movement.

Consider the flight from reality of the so-called birthers, who claim that Mr. Obama was actually born in Kenya. To believe that canard, they must also believe that Mr. Obama's mother and grandparents conspired to publish notices of his birth in not one but two Honolulu newspapers in August 1961; that the current Republican governor of Hawaii, Linda Lingle, a dedicated partisan and strong supporter of her party's nominee, John McCain, conspired last year and is conspiring now to conceal the truth about Mr. Obama's birth certificate, along with a host of Hawaii state officials; and that one of several obviously forged "Kenyan" documents is the true Obama birth certificate.

Even Buchanan, who has spent a lifetime agitating white fear, admits that's nutty. But the mealy-mouthed spokesmen for the Republican Party, on Capitol Hill and in states across the country, dare not say so.

They cower before the talk jocks and kooks who have seized the leadership of the right. Much of this madness is just cynical posturing, designed to increase ratings and hits, to sell silly books and fleece the rubes of their money. To understand the phoniness behind the hysteria, recall that anti-Obama propagandists Christopher Ruddy and Richard Mellon Scaife, the owners of Newsmax, used to traffic in all of the Clinton conspiracy nonsense -- until they sought a reconciliation with the Clintons over the past few years and admitted that their old accusations were utterly wrong.

Why would anyone trust their accusations against the president now?

Most Americans never will. But the clear purpose of birther propaganda is not to win a majority by democratic means, but to drive a minority of a minority into turmoil and even violence -- as indicated by their behavior at this month's Congressional town hall meetings. Should we experience another tragedy like the Oklahoma City bombing, the blood and the ruin will be on their conscience.

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