Birtherism Is Dead. Long Live Birtherism.
The history of a national embarrassment, and why it's not over yet.
"Techdude delivers a final report that exceeds my wildest expectations," blogged Pamela Geller in July 2008. "It is irrefutable, empirical evidence—Obama's birth certificate is a forgery."
The early birthers were conservatives and Clinton supporters, people with intense interest in denying the presidency to Obama by any means necessary. The Hillary supporters did some of the hardest digging. It was one of them, going by the name TexDarlin, who took up a challenge to find a contemporary birth announcement for Obama in 1961 Honolulu newspapers. In late July 2008, she found two of them. (Her original post announcing this has been deleted.)
That wasn't enough to put the fire out. In August, before the Democratic convention, a Philadelphia attorney named Phil Berg, whose most recent high-profile lawsuits had been filed to bring attention to 9/11 conspiracy theorists, filed a lawsuit against Obama. The lawsuit was a bouillabaisse of discredited claims. Berg resurrected that 2007 CNN story about Obama's Indonesian school to argue—without basis—that Obama must have given up his citizenship in the 1960s.
Berg got nowhere, but he kept pushing. In October, an Anabaptist bishop named Ron McRae released what he claimed was a recording of a call to Sarah Obama, a Kenya-based relative of the candidate who'd become somewhat famous (the image of a woman in an African village with an "Obama" sign was irresistible), in which she admitted she was in the room when Obama was born in Kenya. But that wasn't what was actually on the tape. No matter—it made it into another Berg filing.
The lawsuits continued after the 2008 election. They stayed on the fringe. Alan Keyes had run a vanity presidential campaign, and lost, but he'd grown interested in the conspiracy theory. Orly Taitz, a Moldova-born dentist with a law degree from a correspondence course, and Gary Kreep, helped Team Keyes file a lawsuit arguing that his rights as a candidate had been violated by Obama's lack of proof of citizenship. Some of the lawsuits made it to the review process at the Supreme Court, but no further. Radio hosts were starting to talk about this, but no one with real political clout took the birthers seriously.
This would change.
Birtherism, the Democratic tactic: March 2009 to January 2011
In March 2009, with very little fanfare, Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., introduced one of his first pieces of legislation.
"To amend the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to require the principal campaign committee of a candidate for election to the office of President to include with the committee's statement of organization a copy of the candidate's birth certificate, together with such other documentation as may be necessary to establish that the candidate meets the qualifications for eligibility to the Office of President under the Constitution."
For the first time, an elected office-holder had indulged the birther theory. Before this point, there was no reason to ask a Republican if he bought into that stuff. Now there was. A dozen Republicans co-sponsored the Posey bill. Fringe-curious reporters (and here I'll raise my hand) and liberal blogs covered it all with amazement. A liberal videographer named Mike Stark tailed Republican members of Congress to get their takes on the story.
At the time, Democrats saw an advantage in making Republicans look crazy. On May 26, 2009, for the first time, a birther question made it into the White House press briefing. Les Kinsolving of WorldNetDaily, the conservative site that promoted or investigated birther theories on an hourly basis, was called on by then-press secretary Robert Gibbs.
"In consideration of this very good promise of transparency," asked Kinsolving, "why can't the president respond to the petition to requests of 400,000 American citizens by releasing a certified copy of his long-form birth certificate listing hospital?"
Kinsolving was drowned out by laughter.
"Are you looking for the president's birth certificate?" asked Gibbs.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Phil Wolf by John Moore/Getty Images.