Some Americans, especially on the Left, seem to have almost forgotten that Barack Obama is an African-American whose rise to the presidency was one of the most unlikely political stories in U.S. history.
Reflecting this attitude, I sometimes get e-mails from progressives calling Obama a coward for his failure to battle more aggressively against Republican policies. And there surely have been plenty of times when Obama folded his cards prematurely.
But the truth is that no black man in the United States who makes a serious run for the White House can be described as a coward or lacking guts.
On the last night of the campaign in 2008, my youngest son Jeff and I went to Manassas, Virginia, to see Obama’s final rally. About 100,000 people crammed into an expansive field normally used for county fairs, an impressive turnout especially for an event only recently added to the schedule.
But an unsettling image was kept out of the TV camera angles: Secret Service sharpshooters with their baseball caps on backwards were positioned around the fairgrounds surveying the crowd through the telescopic scopes of high-powered rifles. The threats against Obama’s life were unprecedented.
Yet, when the Democratic candidate arrived at the rally, he spoke to the crowd – as he had hundreds of others – without the slightest hint of the ever-present danger that he faced.
I know that many Obama critics pooh-pooh such facts, noting that it was his choice to run for president and that he knew the risks. Also, it’s true that the Secret Service is a highly professional organization with a great record for protecting presidents and other high-ranking officials.
But Obama also was well aware of the tragic history of the United States in which black men – both prominent and little known – were gunned down for acts far less presumptuous than running for president.
And, on the Right, the resentment against Obama continues to simmer. The sorry spectacle of Obama’s political enemies pushing the ludicrous conspiracy theory that he wasn’t born in the United States has been a reminder that Obama’s race and his electoral victory unleashed some very ugly sentiments among both right-wingers and members of the Republican Party.
This “birther” smear was promoted with zest by the right-wing media, but it also was tolerated by leading Republicans, the likes of House Speaker John Boehner and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin who refused to discourage what was apparently viewed as a politically useful tactic against Obama.
So effective indeed that recent polls showed that large majorities of Republicans said either that Obama was born outside the United States or that he might have been – despite Obama’s long-ago release of a Hawaiian-state-certified short-form birth certificate and the existence of other persuasive evidence like his birth announcements in Hawaiian newspapers.
And, whatever the protests to the contrary, there clearly were racial undertones to this “birther” movement, the assumption that a black man with an exotic name couldn’t be a “real American.”
The Right also demonstrated again that its vast propaganda machine could put any wacky notion into play and get a significant portion of the American people to fall for it.
A Cringing Moment
So, the nation had to endure the cringing moment on Wednesday as the president of the United States presented his long-form birth certificate to the public to prove he was a naturally born American.
Then, shameless Republicans, who had helped stoke the conspiracy theory with snarky formulations about “taking the President at his word,” chastised Obama for wasting the country’s time with such a trivial matter when he should have been focusing on important matters like the economy.
In other words, after generating or encouraging this baseless smear, Republicans then spun Obama’s reluctant response to disprove the nonsense as a talking point to hit him again.
From watching the news coverage, I didn’t see a single Republican or right-winger express any regret for having aided and abetted this racially tinged campaign. It was as if this African-American outsider to the U.S. power structure deserved the hazing that he had gotten; nothing to apologize for.
The “birther” theme also was not an isolated case. During 2008, even as Obama was facing an unprecedented number of death threats, his political opponents – both Democratic and Republican – and the mainstream news media began questioning his patriotism because he wasn’t wearing an American flag lapel pin.
In a nationally televised debate before the Pennsylvania primary in April 2008, Obama was peppered with questions about his patriotism, including why he wasn’t wearing a flag pin, as if he needed to prove he was a “real American.”
The questioning was particularly curious because the two ABC News moderators asking the questions and his Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, weren’t wearing a flag pin either. And, on the campaign trail, neither was Sen. John McCain, then the presumptive Republican nominee.
ABC News moderator Charles Gibson said he felt compelled to press Obama on the flag-pin point because questions about Obama’s patriotism were “all over the Internet.”
Obama, the black man, was the only one pestered about the need to stick a flag pin in his lapel to prove he loved America.
After Sen. Clinton trounced Obama in the Pennsylvania primary, Obama relented and began wearing a flag pin, a practice he continues to this day.
But that concession wasn’t going to quiet his political enemies incensed over the idea that a black man and his family could get to live in the White House. They needed a new wedge issue to challenge Obama’s Americanism and his legitimacy. Hence, the stubborn “birther” issue.
Facts? What Facts?
The “birther” theme was particularly curious because it was created in the face of a clear factual record to the contrary. The state of Hawaii certified Obama’s birth with the usual short form that is regarded as definitive proof of citizenship, and public officials from both parties verified the form’s veracity. In 1961, there were also birth announcements in Hawaiian newspapers.
So, the idea that the Dunhams, a family of modest means, and Obama’s 18-year-old mother would somehow concoct a conspiracy – hustling the newborn baby from Kenya through U.S. immigration back to Hawaii and then coordinate with a local hospital and state officials to create a false birth record on the decidedly off-chance that this mixed-race baby would someday run for president of the United States – defies credulity, to put it mildly.
And, despite real-estate mogul Donald Trump’s claim that he had dispatched investigators to Hawaii and that they had supposedly learned about the possible disappearance of Obama’s long-form birth certificate, there was never any evidence that this conspiracy had occurred.
Yet, Trump was among the Republican presidential hopefuls who avoided anything like an apology when Obama released his long-form birth certificate on Wednesday.
But the correct apology would not only be to Obama for the false claims about his birth place. Without doubt, something far more sinister was involved here.
Like the flag-pin controversy, the “birther” case became a stand-in for those who saw political benefit in undermining Obama’s legitimacy with the American people. By drawing attention to his ethnicity, "birtherism" became as much a code word for racism as was the states’ rights excuse used by white segregationists in the South a half century ago.
While some on the American Left seem to have forgotten how extraordinary it was for the United States to elect a talented black politician as president, it does not appear that the Right has been so colorblind.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a two-book set for the discount price of only $19. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.