Salon's handy-dandy guide to refuting the Birthers

Now you, too, can silence the annoying Birther in your life -- and in just eight easy steps!

Published August 5, 2009 10:32AM (EDT)

This photo provided by the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., shows Obama with his mother Ann Dunham in an undated photo from the 1960's. Dunham met Obama's father, Barack Obama Sr. from Kenya, when both were students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa; they married in 1960.
This photo provided by the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., shows Obama with his mother Ann Dunham in an undated photo from the 1960's. Dunham met Obama's father, Barack Obama Sr. from Kenya, when both were students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa; they married in 1960.

There are, sadly, a lot of Birthers out there. A recent poll showed that 11 percent of Americans -- including 28 percent of Republicans -- don't believe President Obama was born in the U.S. Another 12 percent aren't sure.

So, at some point, you're likely to find out that a friend or relative is a Birther. Your Uncle Floyd will forward you a chain e-mail that says Obama was actually born in Kenya and there's a Kenyan birth certificate that proves it and hundreds of government officials and reporters are in on a conspiracy to hide the truth of his ineligibility for the presidency from the public. And you will wonder: How can I possibly deal with all the falsehoods in this e-mail without disappearing down a rabbit hole?

Well, wonder no more. In the spirit of public service, Salon has compiled this list of the most popular Birther myths, along with all the debunking you could ever ask for. Now you can just  e-mail this list to Uncle Floyd and get on with your life.

Unfortunately, there is some small print involved in this offer. We can't promise this article will convince Uncle Floyd that Obama was born in the U.S. and is the legitimate president. In fact, we can just about guarantee that it won't have much effect at all. That's just the way conspiracy theories work: Believers are unlikely to change their minds, no matter how much evidence you present.

Still, it's worth a try.

Myth 1: Obama wasn't born in the U.S.

This is the big one. It may also be the most easily refuted. First of all, during the presidential campaign, Obama released a certification of live birth, which is the official document you get if you ask Hawaii for a copy of your birth certificate. There are allegations that what Obama released is a forgery, but state officials have repeatedly affirmed its authenticity and said they've checked it against the original record and that Obama was indeed born in Hawaii.

If that wasn't enough, two Hawaiian newspapers carried announcements of Obama's birth in August 1961. (Read the Honolulu Advertiser's item from Aug. 13, 1961, nine days after Obama's birth, here.) The traditional joke that Birther debunkers make is that his grandparents must have placed those announcements because they knew that he'd want to run for president nearly five decades later. The truth, though, is that the notices are even stronger pieces of evidence than that. Obama's family didn't place them -- Hawaii did, as it does for all births. The announcements were based on official records sent to the papers by the state's Department of Health.

Myth 2: Obama can't be president because his father was a British citizen

Some of the Birthers -- like de facto leader Orly Taitz -- believe that Obama wouldn't be eligible for the presidency even if he were born in the U.S. That's because, in their infinite wisdom, the Founding Fathers included in the Constitution a fair amount of phrases they never really bothered to define. One of those is this explanation of who can be president: "No person except a natural born citizen."

The Supreme Court has never ruled directly on the question of what "natural born citizen" means. So the Birthers have simply settled on their own definition -- someone born to two citizen parents -- and found a source,"The Law of Nations," a 1758 book by the Swiss philosopher Emerich de Vattel, to back them up.

There are a couple of problems with this. Most important, Obama isn't the first president with a non-citizen parent: Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president, was. His father was from Ireland and apparently did not become a U.S. citizen until more than 10 years after the future president's birth.

Plus, even if the Founding Fathers did rely on Vattel as much as the Birthers say -- always a dubious proposition -- Swiss philosophy books aren't legal precedent in the United States. British common law is. And in 1898, in the case of U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, the Supreme Court looked into the meaning of "natural born" in the common law and concluded that a non-citizen's mere presence in the U.S. is enough to make their child, if born here, a natural-born citizen.

Myth 3: A Kenyan birth certificate for Obama, showing he was born in Mombasa, has been discovered

It's a hoax. Once Taitz released the document, purportedly a certified copy of a Kenyan birth certificate, it took less than two days for Internet sleuths to prove that it had been forged.

The first signs were a couple of small but revealing errors: The certification is dated Feb. 17, 1964, when newly independent Kenya was known as the Dominion of Kenya. It wouldn't start calling itself the Republic of Kenya until December of that year -- but the document refers to the republic. Additionally, the document's header refers to "Coast Province," but as two British professors who are experts in Kenyan history pointed out to Salon, at the time the certificate was supposedly produced, the country's provinces were referred to as regions.

For the final nail in this myth's coffin, one particularly enterprising man, Steve Eddy, located the original Australian document on which the Kenyan certificate was apparently based. The two documents share several identical numbers, including the page and the book of records in which they can be found, and minor changes were made to the names of the registrars responsible for the Australian copy. Taitz claims the Australian certificate "was created to try to discredit my efforts" but it was in fact available on the Internet as far back as 2007.

Myth 4: Obama's grandmother said he was born in Kenya

There's a kernel of truth to this one. In an interview with a street preacher named Ron McRae, Sarah Obama, the second wife of the president's grandfather, did say she was there, in Kenya, for her grandson's birth.

Unfortunately for the Birthers, it was the result of a miscommunication -- or perhaps a mistranslation -- and as soon as McRae started pressing the issue, Obama's family realized what had happened and corrected him. Most Birthers simply ignore the corrections, excising them from audio and transcripts of the conversation posted online. McRae just believes it's part of the conspiracy and that Obama's younger relatives were coached to hide the truth.

The full audio can be downloaded here. What follows is a transcript of the relevant portion of the interview:

MCRAE: Could I ask her about his actual birthplace? I would like to see his birthplace when I come to Kenya in December. Was she present when he was born in Kenya?

TRANSLATOR: Yes. She says, yes, she was, she was present when Obama was born.

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?

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

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

TRANSLATOR: 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.

TRANSLATOR: 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.

Myth 5: Hawaii allows parents to get birth certificates for their foreign-born children

This one is actually true -- just not in the way the Birthers think. Here's their position, as outlined by World Net Daily, a conservative news site that's become the unofficial Birther Web headquarters: "The 'Certification of Live Birth' posted online and widely touted as 'Obama's birth certificate' does not in any way prove he was born in Hawaii, since the same 'short-form' document is easily obtainable for children not born in Hawaii."

Children not born in Hawaii can get a birth document from the state. But it won't say they were born in Hawaii, as Obama's does.

"If you were born in Bali, for example, you could get a certificate from the state of Hawaii saying you were born in Bali," Janice Okubo, the director of communications for the state Department of Health, told the Washington Independent's David Weigel recently. "You could not get a certificate saying you were born in Honolulu. The state has to verify a fact like that for it to appear on the certificate."

Myth 6: Obama traveled to Pakistan using an Indonesian passport

When the Birthers tire of arguing that Obama wasn't born in the U.S., they take another tack. At some point during the time he spent in Indonesia growing up, they say, Obama must have taken Indonesian citizenship or renounced his American citizenship or both. As proof, they cite the trip he took to Pakistan in 1981 with a friend from college, and say the U.S. government had issued a ban on travel by its citizens to the country.

Thing is, there was no travel ban. "We have no record of any travel ban between America and Pakistan during that period or since," a State Department spokesman told Weigel. And's Brooks Jackson notes that the New York Times printed an article about travel to Pakistan on June 14, 1981, which said Americans just needed a visa to travel there. Two months later, the U.S. consul general in Lahore, Pakistan, wrote to the Times to say he'd "welcome an influx of Americans."

Myth 7: Obama hasn't released his birth certificate

Here, we'll admit, Uncle Floyd has a point -- at least a limited one. Strictly speaking, what Obama's campaign released wasn't called a birth certificate; it's a certification of live birth. But there's no functional difference between the two: Ask Hawaii for your birth certificate, and you'll get the certification of live birth back.

"Our Certificate of Live Birth is the standard form, which was modeled after national standards that are acceptable by federal agencies and organizations," Okubo told the Honolulu Advertiser. "With that form, you can get your passport or your soccer registration or your driver's license."

There's been some confusion about whether the original even still exists, but that's now been cleared up. Okubo told the Advertiser that in 2001 the state's paper documents were put into an electronic form, but "any paper data prior to that still exists ... we have backups for all of our backups."

Myth 8:  If Obama would just release his birth certificate, he could end all this

So why hasn't the state of Hawaii released the original paper document? By law, the state can't release Obama's birth records without his OK. State law says that the document can only be released to or "inspect[ed]" by someone with a "direct and tangible" interest. (Though, again, except for "permit[ting] inspection," the law refers to the release of copies and certified copies, not the original record.)

But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Obama could get the original paper document out of its undisclosed Hawaiian location and show it to reporters. Shouldn't he? Maybe not. He's already released a completely legal form of proof of his birthplace; to cave in to the Birthers' demands now would legitimize them. It would also likely lead to a wave of stories asking why the change in stance had happened, and what had taken so long.

The truth is that it was the original release of the certification of live birth that kicked off the Birther movement to begin with. And some of its leaders wouldn't cease their quest even if they were given the original birth certificate -- along with a video showing Obama being born, lei already around his neck.

Conspiracy theorists cling to their theories in the face of all evidence, and in this case the groundwork for disputing an original birth certificate has already been laid. In October of 2008, Rush Limbaugh suggested that Obama's trip to Hawaii to see his dying grandmother might really have been made in order to do some quick forgery. Limbaugh's fellow talk radio host Michael Savage jumped on that bandwagon, too.

Plus, the Birthers have a long list of other demands. Here's one sent out by Gary Kreep, who's representing Alan Keyes in his lawsuit challenging Obama's eligibility. Read it, and abandon all hope:

  • Actual long-form birth certificate (NOT an easily-forged electronic copy of a short-form document that is not even officially accepted in Hawaii)
  • Passport files
  • University of Chicago Law School scholarly articles
  • Harvard Law Review articles
  • Harvard Law School records
  • Columbia University records
  • Columbia University senior thesis, "Soviet Nuclear Disarmament"
  • Occidental College records, including financial aid that he may have received
  • Punahou School records, where Mr. Obama attended from the fifth grade until he finished high school
  • Noelani Elementary School records, where Barack Obama attended kindergarten (according to the Hawaii Department of Education, students must submit a birth certificate to register -- but parents may bring a passport or student visa if the child is from a foreign country)
  • Complete files and schedules of his years as an Illinois state senator from 1997 to 2004
  • Obama's client list from during his time in private practice with the Chicago law firm of Davis, Miner, Barnhill and Gallard
  • Illinois State Bar Association records
  • Baptism records
  • Obama/Dunham marriage license
  • Obama/Dunham divorce documents
  • Soetoro/Dunham marriage license
  • Soetero/Dunham adoption records 

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Alex Koppelman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------