The Birthers in Congress

Seventeen men and women who are either enabling the fringe movement or having trouble admitting Obama is president

Published July 28, 2009 10:26AM (EDT)

Top row, from left, Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., middle row, from left,  Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, bottom row, from left, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif.
Top row, from left, Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., middle row, from left, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, bottom row, from left, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif.

"The only people that I know who are afraid to take drug tests are the people who use drugs," says Rep. Bill Posey. The Florida Republican is the author of the so-called "Birther" bill, which would require future presidential candidates to submit their birth certificates. The fact that President Obama has already submitted -- forgive the extension of Posey's metaphor -- a clean urine sample seems to be completely irrelevant. Whether it's out of cynicism, fear of the GOP base or a simple inability to read and reason, the ranks of Birthers in Congress seem to be growing.

Salon has here in its (virtual) hand a list of 17 names of members of Congress who have either expressed support for, or refused to oppose, the idea that America has a foreign president problem. You'd be surprised how hard it is to get a member of Congress to say that Barack Obama is a natural-born citizen with the right to be president. Or maybe you wouldn't. Meet the Birthers on the Hill:

Rep: Bill Posey, R-Fla.: Though rumors of then-candidate Barack Obama's ineligibility for office incubated in right-wing fever swamps during the campaign, they found their first congressional ally in the actual swamps of Florida. Posey, a first-term representative from the "Space Coast" of Florida, is the sponsor of a bill that would require presidential candidates to submit their birth certificates. Posey has said that he can't "swear on a stack of Bibles" that Obama is a citizen. The congressman told Lou Dobbs, "The eligibility of the president to serve under the Constitution has arisen five times, and Congress has failed to do anything about it thus far." Barry Goldwater was born in Arizona Territory, Posey points out. George Romney was born in Mexico. Shoot, John McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone, and, claims Posey, the New York Times and Washington Post thought that made him ineligible. (We must have missed those editions of the Times and the Post. Posey's office has not responded to a request for comment.)

Meanwhile, Stephen Colbert has demanded that Posey disprove the rumors about his own parentage. An outraged Posey denies the allegation. "There is no reason to say that I'm the illegitimate grandson of an alligator."

Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif.: Though he wasn't the first member of Congress to board the birther train, Campbell is perhaps the most infamous, thanks to an interview on the topic with an unamused Chris Matthews. Campbell cites the same talking points -- Romney, Goldwater and McCain -- as Posey did. "Nice try," responds Matthews, who then showed him the president's birth certificate. "You're verifying the paranoia out there. You're saying to the people, 'You're right, that's a reasonable question, whether he's a citizen or not.'"

Campbell spends the interview trying to weasel out of the question. "As far as I know, yes," he says of Obama's legitimacy. "Say it now: Barack Obama is president of the United States and he was born in this country," Matthews insists. "He is president of the United States," responds Campbell. Finally, under duress, Campbell concedes that Obama enjoys natural-born status: "Yes, I believe so."

With a hint of malice, Matthews half-jokes his way through the end of the segment, saying, "Congressman John Campbell, who does believe -- watch the rerun at 7 -- that Barack Obama is a native-born American. So those wackos in your district out there, don't vote for this guy, because he fundamentally disagrees with you. I'm just kidding." Campbell winces visibly.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.: Probably the know-nothingest member of the Senate, Inhofe thinks climate change is "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." Coming in second, presumably, is the current fraudulent presidency. The Oklahoma conservative recently told Politico that the Birthers "have a point," adding, "I don't discourage it ... But I'm going to pursue defeating [Obama] on things that I think are very destructive to America." In a later clarification, he accused the White House of not doing "a very good job of dispelling the concerns of these citizens."

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.: Asked about the president's eligibility at an Alabama town hall meeting back in February, Shelby said, "Well, his father was Kenyan and they said he was born in Hawaii, but I haven't seen any birth certificate. You have to be born in America to be president." Almost immediately afterward, his spokesperson was saying that the local paper had distorted what happened, adding, "While [Shelby] hasn't personally seen the president's birth certificate, he is confident that the matter has been thoroughly examined."

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.: This Tennessee politician, a co-sponsor of the Posey bill, trusts that the president is a natural-born citizen, says a spokesperson. She just thinks it's mighty odd that candidates for office don't have to meet "the same basic identifying standard as a 16-year-old Tennessean aspiring to a driver's license." Obviously, as government bloats and journalism withers, the DMV is much easier to trick than the international media. 

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind.: Paranoia is how Burton gets in the news. In the 1990s, the Indiana Republican shot a pumpkin in his backyard to demonstrate how the Clintons could have whacked Vince Foster. Now he's a co-sponsor of the birther bill. Says a spokesperson, explaining Burton's co-sponsorhip, "You don't want to needlessly expose presidents to crazy conspiracy theories." No, of course not.

Team Stonewall: Mike Stark, of the blog FireDogLake, wandered around the Capitol trying, and mainly failing, to get a straight answer. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., tells Stark she "would like to see the documents." One wonders what's stopping her. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., says the issue of Obama's eligibility "is certainly being looked at." (Though apparently not by him.) "I think there are questions. We'll have to see."

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., asks Stark, "Do you have some evidence that he is or isn't?" Rep. Greg Harper, R-Miss., says that he thinks that "the Constitution speaks for itself, and it'll be up to others to look into that." Michigan's Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, asked whether Obama was born in the United States, says, "I'm focused on healthcare issues." (When the question was reiterated by Salon, a McCotter spokesperson again refused to comment, saying, "He's focused on healthcare like he said.") However, Rep. Tom Price, who sprinted away from Stark's camera, apparently doesn't want to be a member of Team Stonewall. A Price spokesman told Salon that Price was only running because he was late for a vote, and that Price does in fact believe that Obama was born in the United States.

The Gaggle of Unknown Texans: Reps. John Carter, John Culberson, Kenny Marchant, Ted Poe and Randy Neugebauer, all backbench Texas Republicans, have signed on to the Posey bill. Says Neugebauer, "I don't have the documentation one way or the other. And so my assumption is that he is a natural-born citizen, that hopefully the appropriate people checked that." Apparently, Neugebauer also does not have access to the Internet. Explains a spokesperson for Carter, "The requirement is there in the law upfront. So all of our candidates in the future should respond and present the documentation upfront, and then there can't be any of these type of charges." Chalk all these charges against Obama to his tardiness in presenting his documentation. He waited all the way until June of 2008.

The Facebook Friends: A number of prominent Republicans are friends with birther leaders on Facebook. Of course, Facebook friendship need not imply an endorsement, in any form, of the denial of the president's eligibility for office. For example, New Jersey's Rep. Scott Garrett is Facebook friends with Philip Berg, a big-time Birther. "Oh my," said Garrett communications director Erica Elliott in response to this information. Elliott had never heard of Berg, but explained that Garrett doesn't manage his Facebook account, and a staffer must have confirmed Berg's friendship request, unaware of who he is.

The most aggressive Facebook user among the Birthers is Orly Taitz, the California dentist-lawyer-real estate agent who may also be the best-known Birther, even though she is a Facebook novice. "Today," she posted Sunday, "is the first day my assistants Vivian and Theresa opened my Facebook account to wide audience." Already she counts Rep. Eric Cantor, the House minority whip, among her virtual friends. But Cantor's spokesperson says much the same thing that Garrett's did: "She is registering her support for Eric Cantor, and nothing more. Not vice versa." (Taitz is also Facebook friends with Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, whose office did not respond to a request for comment.)

Finally, Taitz claims that she was friended by Rep. Mary Bono Mack of California shortly after becoming active on Facebook. "Amazingly, Congresswoman Mary Bono asked to be my friend on Facebook."

A spokeswoman for Bono Mack told Salon that the Facebook friendship with Taitz doesn’t indicate support for Taitz, and is just a form of general, broad outreach. However, given three opportunities to agree on behalf of Bono Mack that the president was born in the United States and is qualified to command the armed forces, the spokeswoman refused to comment.

Counting the Facebook friends, that's 17 Republican elected officials who either seem doubtful that Obama is a legal head of state or are more than willing to indulge and even fan the unfounded doubts of their constituents. Nearly one in 10 members of the House Republican Caucus can fairly be said to have Birther sympathies, and those are just the ones we know about. The evasiveness doesn't really look great either. After all, as Posey says, the only people who won't take drug tests are the ones doing drugs. 

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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