Was Obama the first Birther? Donald Trump laid the Birther issue to rest at a press conference September 16th. He did it quite deftly, by Trumpian standards, just slipping in a remark at the end of a campaign event. The remark was, quote: "President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period."
He wouldn't take any questions on it at the presser, but on Wednesday this week, asked by an interviewer why he'd changed his mind after pushing the Birther issue for five years, he replied, quote: "Well, I just wanted to get on with, you know, we want to get on with the campaign," end quote.
That makes good sense, and I'm glad the whole silly Birther business is out of the way. The idea that Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya never held much water, given what we know about his parents' movements and circumstances at the time. Now, with Obama in the closing months of his Presidency, you can add irrelevance to the nuttiness.
Let's remember, though, that there is a fair case to be made that the whole Birther business was launched by Obama himself.
The story line here starts in 1991, when Obama got himself a literary agent. At this time Obama was teaching law at the University of Chicago and working on his first book. The literary agent put out some promotional materials, giving the title of the book-in-progress as Journeys in Black and White. No book ever actually appeared with that title, but presumably Obama's 1995 autobiography, Dreams from My Father, was the eventual fruit of his literary labors.
In that 1991 promotional material from the literary agency, Obama is listed as, quote, "born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia and Hawaii." You can see the material for yourself on the fact-checking website Snopes.com.
That's peculiar. Obama was not famous at this point. He had been noticed in print only by the New York Times, which the previous year had run a story on him being elected President of the Harvard Law Review. That notice plainly said, right in the second paragraph, quote: "Mr. Obama was born in Hawaii."
These were pre-internet days, remember. The person who wrote the bio for the literary agency had nothing to go on but (a) the New York Times story, and (b) whatever Obama told her. (We actually know her name: Miriam Goderich.)
Since the Times story has Obama born in Hawaii, the statement of him having been born in Kenya must have come from Obama himself.
Three possibilities occur to me. I'm speaking here as a person with many years experience of literary agents and publishers. Here are the three possibilities, in order from most likely on my judgment to least likely.
- The agency thought they'd spice Obama's biography up a bit, to help book sales, by making him sound exotic: Not just some run-of-the-mill middle-class American black guy, but someone born in Kenya! which is in Africa!! If you doubt that literary agents and publishers ever stoop to such low marketing tricks, I have stories I could tell you … lots of stories.
- Obama himself had that idea, to spice up his bio for promotional purposes.
- Ms Goderich wasn't paying very close attention when she gathered Obama's details, probably over the phone, and she confused his father being Kenyan with Obama himself having been born there.
My own rating of those three probabilities, most to least likely, is in the order I gave them. They're all possible, though. Ms Goderich herself claims possibility number three — that she just goofed. Obama was still her client when she said this, though, so it's what she would say.
The idea that it was Obama himself who first put the Birther story in play was re-aired recently by Brian Joondeph at American Thinker, September 18th, quote:
His literary bio represents the first promotion of his being born in Kenya. If this was a mere oversight, it would have quickly been corrected.That fortifies my suspicions that this was no mere blooper by a literary agent's clerk
Instead 16 years went by with the bio neither revised nor updated. It was finally corrected in 2007 when Obama announced his Presidential candidacy.
I'm not myself a Birther, and never have been. My cast of mind is strongly Old British Empiricist. I'm allergic to conspiracy theories, and always inclined to think that things are most likely what they seem to be. Armstrong and Aldrin did walk on the moon, JFK was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, and Dwight Eisenhower was not a Soviet agent. Sure, I know, there really are conspiracies sometimes; I just don't think that's the way to bet.
That the young Barack Obama wanted to look more exotic than he is, for purposes of self-promotion, doesn't rise to the level of being a conspiracy theory, though, and isn't at all implausible, given what we know about the guy. I say there'a a good, albeit circumstantial, case that Barack Obama was the original Birther.
That being so, and all this stuff having been out there for years, the following question arises: Why, in five years of promoting Birtherism, did Donald Trump never refer to any of it?
My answer, at a high level of confidence: Trump just liked the sound of the Birther thing but wasn't sufficiently interested or engaged to do the kind of digging I just did, nor even to have a staffer do it for him.
For a guy with Trump's resources, that was a dereliction of due diligence. I'm still going to vote for him; but I hope in future he has his people do some research on topics of general interest before he sounds off on them. Nineteen ninety-one was not the age of the internet; but 2016 is.