Sex, lies and creatively edited interviews with Sarah Obama

A look at the conspiracy theories surrounding Barack Obama's eligibility for the presidency.

By Alex Koppelman
December 6, 2008 3:20AM (UTC)
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If you didn't see it on your way in, I have an article up elsewhere on the site about the continued frenzy over rumors that Barack Obama isn't actually eligible to be president, either because he supposedly wasn't really born in the U.S. or because he also held British citizenship at birth.

The hold that conspiracy theories have on people, and the ways believers continue to justify their belief even after seeing contradictory evidence, has interested me for a while, especially after I've worked on previous stories that involved such theories. So for this one I called up a few experts in conspiracy theories and the psychology involved. What I heard wasn't good news: This isn't going away any time soon. As I report in the story, Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine (he also holds an undergraduate and a master's degree in psychology) told me, "There's no amount of evidence or data that will change somebody's mind. The more data you present a person, the more they doubt it."


Basically, what happens is that people either ignore the contrary evidence or find some way to dispute it, sometimes by making it a part of the larger conspiracy.

My favorite example in this case is one I didn't include in the story itself for space reasons, but is an example in which the people pushing this theory have actually managed to both ignore the contradictory evidence and dispute it at the same time. One of the allegedly truly damning allegations some of the conspiracy theorists are pushing is that Obama's Kenyan grandmother said in a recent interview that she was there, in Kenya, for her grandson's birth.

During the interview, which was conducted through a translator by a street preacher named Ron McRae, Sarah Obama does in fact say she was present. But it's clear that there was a mistranslation, because as soon as McRae very excitedly starts to try to get additional details, the people on the other end of the line realize what's happened and say, over and over again, that Obama was born in the U.S.


For some reason, the transcripts of the interview that have been posted on various right-wing Web sites all seem to cut off right after Sarah Obama says she was there when her grandson was born. So does this YouTube video with the audio of the interview. But as The Economist points out, McRae also released the full audio, in which the key parts of the conversation can be heard. Here's part of it. (The other person speaking is translator Vitalis Akech Ogombe.)

MCRAE: When I come in December. I would like to come by the place, the hospital, where he was born. Could you tell me where he was born? Was he born in Mombasa?

OGOMBE: No, Obama was not born in Mombasa. He was born in America.

MCRAE: Whereabouts was he born? I thought he was born in Kenya.

OGOMBE: No, he was born in America, not in Mombasa.

MCRAE: Do you know where he was born? I thought he was born in Kenya. I was going to go by and see where he was born.

OGOMBE: Hawaii. Hawaii. Sir, she says he was born in Hawaii. In the state of Hawaii, where his father was also learning, there. The state of Hawaii.

No matter. In McRae's mind, the change is just part of the conspiracy. In an affidavit he put together, he wrote: 

Though some few younger relatives, including Mr. Ogombe, have obviously been versed to counter such facts with the common purported information from the American news media that Obama was born in Hawaii, Ms. Sarah Hussein Obama was very adamant that her grandson, Senator Barack Hussein Obama, was born in Kenya, and that she was present and witnessed his birth in Kenya, not the United States. When Mr. Ogombe attempted to counter Sarah Obama's clear responses to the question, verifying the birth of Senator Obama in Kenya, I asked Mr. Ogombe, how she could be present at Barack Obama's birth if the Senator was born in Hawaii, but Ogombe would not answer the question, instead he repeatedly tried to insert that, "No, No, No. He was born in the United States!"

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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