Birtherism Is Dead. Long Live Birtherism.
The history of a national embarrassment, and why it's not over yet.
President Obama did not end the "birther" movement today. Hours after the president released his long-form birth certificate—years after releasing the short-form one that proved he was a citizen—the issue had already evolved. Republicans who'd been on the hook demanding proof of his citizenship wondered why it took so long. People with too much time on their hands—in other words, the majority of people surfing the Internet for this kind of stuff—were combing the document for proof of forgery.
So Obama did not end birtherism. He did end one era of conspiracy theories about him—the fifth era, by my count. And maybe all he did was make sure the sixth era got started with as loud and embarrassing a bang as possible. If you understand how this started, and who played the biggest roles in elevating it, maybe you can also understand why it's not going to end.
In the beginning, there was no controversy whatsoever about Obama's family ties to Kenya. Reporters mentioned them when he became president of the Harvard Law Review. Book reviewers mentioned them when he released Dreams From My Father in 1996. In late 2003, when Obama jumped into the open race for Illinois' U.S. Senate seat, conspiracy theorists were more focused on his middle and last names than his birthplace. An aide to one Republican candidate launched, then scrapped, a website comparing Obama to Osama Bin Laden. But it wasn't really until Obama's Republican opponent Jack Ryan dropped out of the race and Obama gave the Democrats' 2004 convention keynote that rumors about his past became marketable.
On Aug. 10, 2004, perennial political candidate Andy Martin put out a statement claiming that Obama had lied about aspects of his past. (His convention speech made a lot out of his African heritage, something that reads very differently in 2011.) Martin challenged the idea that Obama's father was a "goat herder," called Obama Sr. a "devoted Muslim," and wrote that Obama's "secret shame at his family history of rape, murder and arson is what actualizes him."
That, for a long time, was the Obama conspiracy theory. The candidate with the Muslim-sounding name and the Muslim father must be a secret Muslim! Chris Hayes traced the rumor's growth over chain emails in 2007, when Obama was struggling against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary. Some of them were based on facts, like a document, turned up in a CNN investigation, from Obama's school in Indonesia. His stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, had registered him as "Barry Soetoro" and listed his religion as Muslim. But none of them were about Obama's citizenship.
Proto-birtherism: April 2008 to June 11, 2008
In March and April 2008, Clinton regained ground and looked to have some chance of beating Obama for the Democratic nomination. This was the time when some Clinton supporters started glomming on to any rumor that looked dangerous. A chain letter from American missionaries in Kenya did the trick: It claimed that Obama's real middle name was "Mohammed."
Politifact quickly debunked the rumor, with one caveat. "We tried to obtain a copy of Obama's birth certificate," the reporters wrote, "but his campaign would not release it and the state of Hawaii does not make such records public."
The first mainstream reporter to pick up on that sentence was National Review's Jim Geraghty. "Obama could debunk some rumors by releasing his birth certificate," he wrote, on June 9, 2008. One of the debunkable rumors was that Obama was born in Kenya—something that would disqualify him for the presidency. "Rather unlikely," wrote Geragthy, "as it would require everyone in his family to lie about this in every interview and discussion with those outside the family since young Obama appeared on the scene."
On June 12, 2008, the Obama campaign released a certificate of live birth on its website, and to select media outlets. Within minutes, it was accessible to anyone who had become curious about the rumors.
Short-form birtherism: June 12, 2008 to March 2009
The release of Obama's COLB did not end birtherism. More accurately, it created it. The one-page document, which had the basics about Obama's birth and the weight of Hawaii's government behind it, inspired a mad rush of would-be forgery analysts and detectives. Two anonymous experts, who used the nom de birthers Techdude and Ron Polarik, published extensive image autopsies that proved, to the gullible, that the Obama campaign was passing on a forgery.
"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.
"Yes," said Kinsolving.
"It's on the Internet, Lester."
Throughout 2009, Kinsolving could be counted on as a sort of escape hatch—call on him, and he'd ask another oddball question. In the summer, Taitz, with her neon hairdo, incomprehensible accent, and ability to convince members of the military to sign up with her, became a sort of celebrity. She even appeared on the Colbert Report to talk up her cases. Absolutely zero new information was introduced—discredited reports about Obama just kept on circulating. But Democrats saw it all as a way to discredit the right. In January 2010, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee encouraged the party's candidates to get their Republican opponents on the record on some fringe issues. Among them: "Do you believe that Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen?"
"We have a finite window when [Republican] candidates will feel susceptible to the extremists in their party," wrote DSCC chairman Bob Menendez.
There was plenty of video of Republican candidates going birther-curious all through 2010. Occasionally, stumbling over the birther question would cost a Republican a newspaper endorsement. It was always good for a segment on cable news. But 2010 was a bad year for Democrats. Very few of the Republicans nailed by this actually lost.
Birtherism, the Republican tactic: January 2011 to April 27, 2011
Republicans won big in 2010, and they won especially large landslides in some red and blue states. * In 2010, "birther bills" were distractions, doomed from the outset. In 2011, there were legislatures with big Republican majorities ready to pass them. Birtherism stopped being a joke. All of a sudden, the Republicans who believed in it were on cable TV, talking about the need to find out where Obama was born.
But there were also Republicans who wanted this to go away, and they won out. Arizona passed a birther bill and sent it to Gov. Jan Brewer's desk. She vetoed it and said the obsession over the issue was leading America down a "path of destruction." At the same time, Donald Trump had hitched his presidential campaign to the birther "issue." It was not hurting him; he had gone from nowhere to the front of the tentative Republican field.
This was the first Era of Birtherism in which Obama's staff had to field regular questions about an issue they knew was baseless. And this was why it came to an end today. The next era of Obama conspiracies starts with the president in a much more exposed position. Now, conspiracy theorists know that all kinds of people will listen to them if they toss an idea out there—even if the idea is proved to be baseless. Now, Democrats are on the lookout for the next big fantasy, and Republicans think they've found an Obama weakness. Why, after all, would he climb down to the gutter and duel with Donald Trump if the issue wasn't hurting him? What else is bubbling up on the Internet? What else can get under his skin?
Correction, April 28, 2011: This article originally referred to Republicans winning big in 2011. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
VIDEO: Trump Claims Credit for Obama Birth Certificate Release
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.