|Warren G. Harding in 1920. Does he look African-American to you?|
How strangely pathetic it's been this week to watch the Birthers, that not-so-small segment of Americans so cynical of media and government that they seriously believe Barack Obama might not actually be an American-born citizen, making him constitutionally disqualified as president. If true, this means a vast conspiracy to conceal the truth, covering decades and continents. The fact that Obama himself two years ago had already released his Certification of Live Birth - the applicable legal proof of birth under Hawaii law -- seemed irrelevant to self-proclaimed skeptics like Donald Trump. Instead, they insisted on seeing Obama's "long form" Certificate of Live Birth -- a more detailed document no longer used officially in Hawaii -- which the White House released yesterday.
The argument is literally over nothing -- unrelated to any actual issue facing the country and certain not to eject Obama from the White House. And it is literally endless, given that it is logically impossible to prove a negative. Already, new conspiracy theories abound. (Click here for some of the latest.)
Still, much of the country remains transfixed. Why? Are we crazy? Are we racist? Are we nuts? Is this normal?
The fact is that, yes, conspiracy theories are as American as cherry pie. [Full disclosure: I still don't believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.] Often, they are a force for good, a sign of healthy skepticism. Watergate and many other scandals, for instance, might never have been uncovered without stubborn people rejecting pat answers. But they seem to wax especially weird and ugly when applied to the trifecta of presidents, race, and birth.
To put today's Birther into some perspective, here are a few similar manias from over the years:
Warren G. Harding an African American?
Take a look at the photo above of US Senator Warren G. Harding (R-Ohio), Republican candidate for president in 1920. Does he look African American to you?
Harding was well on his way that year to trouncing his Democratic opponent, Ohio governor James Cox, when something strange popped up on the campaign trail. Harding knew that much of the country hated him for being too friendly with black Americans and supporting anti-lynch laws. The white supremacist Ku Klux Klan in 1920 had exploded to four million members, lynchings were common both north and south, and 1919 had seen over a dozen major anti-black race riots in northern cities including Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Around this time, an obscure professor at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, named William Estabrook Chancellor,
"No family in the state (of Ohio) has a clearer, a more honorable record than the Hardings, a blue-eyed stock from New England and Pennsylvania, the finest pioneer blood," said one pamphlet.
But most famously, and to Harding's lasting credit, when confronted directly by a friendly reporter, he refused to deny the obvious fact that a few drops of African blood might be in his veins. "How do I know, Jim? One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence."
|Rachel Jackson. A bigamist?|
Andrew and Rachel quickly took their vows a second time, making the marriage legal and proper, but this didn't end the scandal. Andrew Jackson's enemies would raise it repeatedly over the next thirty years. Jackson would fight thirteen duels during his life, mostly over insults to Rachel.
tragedy struck. On December 22, 1828, just days before she and Jackson planned to leave Tennessee for their journey to Washington and his inauguration, Rachel died of a heart attack.
Andrew Jackson was devastated over his wife's sudden death, and blamed it on politics. The pain and hard feelings would shadow his presidency and last a lifetime. Did the political attacks actually kill Rachel Jackson? Looking back from a distance of over 180 years, it is impossible to know. The "birther issue of 1828"-- that Rachel Jackson was a bigamist and he an adulterer -- happened to be true. Did that make it any less ugly and irrelevant?
Click here for Part II, the Grover Cleveland bastards.