Fear and Loathing on the 2008 Campaign Trail, Part 2: The Birth of Birtherism

Fear and Loathing on the 2008 Campaign Trail, Part 2: The Birth of Birtherism
J. Scott Applewhite


In Part 1 of this series, this writer looked at the mutual distrust and dislike that built up between candidates Obama and Clinton over the course of the 2008 Democrat Party campaign.

Today, I look at the birther issue because it resurfaces later in the Spygate saga in two different areas.

Obama went on to win the Democrat nomination and defeat John McCain in the general election in November.  True to her word, after a clandestine hour-long meeting in the home of Diane Feinstein, Clinton dropped out of the race and vowed, in the name of party unity, to stand by Obama.  She enthusiastically campaigned for Obama in 2008.  Hillary always had the Senate to return to, but near the end of the campaign, she stated to friends that she was looking for a new challenge in her life.

It is important to note the attitude of Clinton supporters near the end of the primary campaign.  Some political observers noted that she missed a golden chance for thwarting the Obama momentum with her quietness over the Jeremiah Wright affair.  Probably because she was now gun-shy about wading into anything racial after South Carolina, she remained very silent in this area, as did her supporters.  But as the primary season dragged on with tit-for-tat victories along the way and although it appeared that Obama had boxed in Clinton in the delegate count, someone within the Clinton campaign began an important email chain so long it is difficult to determine who exactly started it.  There has been constant finger pointing between Clinton operatives and figures on the Right.  One thing is certain, however, and that is some Clinton supporters did nothing to dispel the rumors that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and ineligible to be President.

Thus was born birtherism.  The perpetrators were a consortium of hucksters and political conspiracy theorists including a lawyer who had proclaimed that President Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks.  Although Democrats like to point fingers at the Right for conspiracy theories, a 2006 poll found that a majority of Democrats believed that Bush was, indeed, behind the attacks on 9/11, or that it was an “inside job.” 

The first accusation that Obama was a secret Muslim occurred in 2004 amid accusations from perennial candidate Andy Martin.  Throughout 2007 and early into 2008, both parties aggressively dispelled these rumors while Obama stressed his Christian background which, ironically, resulted in the Jeremiah Wright controversy.  What started as Internet rumors about Obama being a secret Muslim and being driven by a radical Islamic ideology soon transformed into rhetoric about Obama’s eligibity to be president since he was born in Kenya.  This started sometime in early 2008 during the Democrat primary season when it appeared that Clinton’s inevitable march to the Presidency was being stymied by Obama.

Despite what the fact-checkers say about the Clinton campaign not being responsible for the birther claims, it is an indisputable fact that some within her campaign and some supporters had latched onto the idea and were spreading falsehoods on the Internet. One of the most prominent was Phil Berg, a lawyer and former deputy attorney general and chairman of the Montgomery County Democrat Party in Pennsylvania.  Berg had spent years trying to prove that Bush was behind or complicit in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and in August, 2008, Berg filed a suit in federal court alleging Obama was ineligible to be President since he held dual citizenship with Kenya.

The birther controversy in 2008 became somewhat of a low-key, but festering idea among Democrats initially that eventually broke into the mainstream.  Conservatives at the time were doing their own investigative work and they all led to the fact that the many rumors circulating involving Obama were false.  Jim Geraghty at National Review painstakingly debunked all the rumors.  The magazine (and its online edition) were supportive of McCain and were urging readers not to dismiss Obama because of these claims, but because of his record.  In that article, Geraghty asked the Obama campaign to help itself and release a copy of his birth certificate to the public to finally put to rest the rumors.  A few days later, Obama did just that.  However, this was greeted with accusations that it was a fake which only reinforced the original rumors.

Geraghty accepted the certificate’s authenticity and noted that unless there was a vast conspiracy within the Hawaii Department of Health which is responsible for the registration of births, there was no reason to doubt that the certificate’s information matched that on the long-form retained by the state.  The actual certificate was examined in 2008 and found to be legitimate and everything people said about it- it lacked a raised seal, it lacked a signature, etc.- were false.

Still, this did not appease some within the birther movement.  They argued that only the long form, not the one released by Obama, was legally binding, although that is patently false since the State Department accepts the short form to issue passports and Hawaii uses it to issue driver licenses.  Under Hawaii law, the long form cannot be released or copied, even to Obama.  However, then-Governor Linda Lingle, a Republican, said she saw the long form and that it was legitimate and that the information on the long form matched up with the information released on the short form.

The series of lawsuits that followed since Berg’s were eventually dismissed as frivolous.  But, birtherism persisted into the presidency of Obama.  As late as 2010, about 25% of Republicans reported that they believed Obama was ineligible to be President given his alleged citizenship status.  That same year, several Republicans running in the midterm elections refused to back away from some of the assertions of the birther issue.  Once again, the birther issue would resurface in 2011-2012 as Obama geared up for reelection.

Next: Obama makes a decision


Join the conversation as a VIP Member

Trending on RedState Video