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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Our Man in Panama



Earlier today, President Obama released his 'long-form birth certificate' on the premise that doing so would enable American political discourse to move on to more important matters. Here is his explanation from the official White House transcript:
We're not going to be able to do it if we just make stuff up and pretend that facts are not facts. We're not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.
Before we put the 'birther' issue to rest forever, I would like to offer my thoughts on how this rubbish started during the 2008 campaign. You see, one of the two major-party candidates for president had the problem of being born outside the United States. I am speaking, of course, of John McCain, native of Panama.

What's that you say? You did not know that John McCain was born in Panama? I wonder why. Every reference source agrees. According to Wikipedia, for instance, John McCain was born on August 29, 1936 at the Coco Solo Naval Air Station, Panama Canal Zone, where his father, John Sidney McCain Jr., was stationed. I should point out, for what it's worth, that McCain has always refused to release his birth certificate. [Update: McCain did provide his birth certificate in 2008 to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire in the case of Hollander v. McCain (2008), which challenged his eligibility to serve.]

Although Panama is obviously not part of the U.S., are U.S. military installations abroad in any way, under any statute or provision, 'part' of the U.S.? Is someone born at a U.S. military installation abroad somehow 'in' the U.S.? In a word, no. Let's take a look at the United States Foreign Affairs Manual, Volume 7, ยง1113, entitled 'NOT INCLUDED IN THE MEANING OF "IN THE UNITED STATES"'. According to paragraph (c)(1),
Despite widespread popular belief, U.S. military installations abroad and U.S. diplomatic or consular facilities abroad are not part of the United States within the meaning of the 14th Amendment. A child born on the premises of such a facility is not born in the United States and does not acquire U.S. citizenship by reason of birth.
Why is it such a problem for a presidential candidate to have been born outside the U.S.? According to Article II of the U.S. Constitution:
No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
The truth is, no one knows for sure what this clause means. No court has ever ruled on it regarding presidential elections, and legal experts are divided. (See summaries of facts and opinions here and here.) In the absence of clear constitutional or jurisprudential guidance, a president born outside the U.S. could be subject to suspicions of constitutional illegitimacy.

Aside from the obviously racist intent, the point of accusing Obama of being foreign-born in 2008 was to draw attention away from McCain's foreign birth. And it seems to have worked. Far more people have heard the lies about Obama's birthplace than the truth about McCain's. Once Obama won the election, the lie took on a life of its own.

I doubt that Obama's statement and document release today will be the final chapter in the history of the 'birther' conspiracy. But I do believe that the need to draw attention away from McCain's 'birther' problem was the first chapter.

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