Tracking down Obama's birth certificate

The HeraldDecember 12, 2008 

In 2000, conservatives cheered when the U.S. Supreme Court declared George W. Bush the winner of the presidential election. Last week, some right-wingers asked the U.S. Supreme Court to undo the results of the 2008 presidential election.

And here I thought conservatives didn't like judicial activism.

In this case, the point is moot. Justices unanimously refused to hear an emergency appeal from a New Jersey man who says President-elect Barack Obama is ineligible to be president because he was a British subject at birth.

Leo Donofrio says that Obama had dual nationality at birth because his mother was American and his Kenyan father was, at the time, a British subject. Therefore, he is not a "natural born citizen" as required by the Constitution of any presidential candidate.

This is nonsense, regardless of the contorted theories about Obama's citizenship that now flood the Internet. Obama was born in the United States, in the state of Hawaii. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution states that "all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States."

Even if both of Obama's parents were non-U.S. citizens vacationing in Hawaii on the day he was born, he still would have been a natural-born citizen.

Not so fast, however. Philip Berg, a Pennsylvania lawyer, has a different theory -- and lawsuit to go with it. Berg thinks all of Obama's Hawaiian birth records are fakes.

He asserts that Obama was born in Kenya, later adopted in Indonesia by his mother's second husband, and that his legal name is Barry Soetoro. Federal courts in Pennsylvania have dismissed Berg's lawsuit, but he's still plugging away: "If and when the right court handles this matter, Barack Obama (and his associates) should really be tried criminally and many of them should go to jail."

Questions about the citizenship status of presidential candidates aren't new. Some wondered whether Barry Goldwater should have been allowed to run because he was born in Arizona before it was a state.

But while these questions aren't new, the way of disseminating them is. The controversy over Obama's birth could not have become as virulent as it is without the Internet.

The Internet is a miraculous source of information. It also is a stupendous source of bad information.

Several reputable websites debunk the rumors about Obama's birth. The nonpartisan site Factcheck.org, for example, has examined Obama's original Hawaiian birth certificate and declared that it has a raised seal and the overall appearance of a genuine document.

Unfortunately, for every such factual explanation, there are thousands of baseless charges churning around on the Internet and passed back and forth among conspiracy mongers and the credulous multitudes who believe them. The rumor spreads like a bad head cold, and logic, reason and the facts are powerless to stop it.

Those who think an unfettered Internet will be the primary source of information from now on believe that self-policing "citizen journalists" will vet information, weed out false rumors and lies, and, ultimately, bring forth the truth. And that vision has great appeal: Millions of people technologically enabled to share information without having to filter it through an agency or corporation, where it might be watered down or even suppressed.

But how do the consumers of this information pick and choose? After all, more sites on the Internet tell us that Obama is an illegal impostor than support his status as a red-blooded American. And if we buy the idea that Obama is not really a U.S. citizen, aren't we obligated to overthrow the government?

Sorry if this sounds self-serving, but however we disperse information, we need news-gathering institutions with the credibility to separate fact from fiction. We need people skilled at asking the right questions, weighing the answers and presenting the results in a fair and clearly understandable way.

No matter how we get our news in the future, we'll still need an institutional press or its equivalent to dig up the truth -- and deflate idiotic rumors about the citizenship of our presidents.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by e-mail, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

The Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service