Who would have guessed that Barack Obama was the original birther, peddling the story that he was born in Kenya long before Donald Trump, Sheriff Joe and assorted nut jobs took it up as a crusade in fantasy and futility.
Mr. Obama’s literary agent put together a little booklet with a biographical sketch in 1991 to promote a book he never finished with a description of the author as “the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review … born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia and Hawaii.”
The literary agent now insists it was her mistake and Mr. Obama never saw the booklet until it was published. An unlikely story, but like everything else about him, it’s an element in the portrait of a composite president, a man with composite ambitions, composite convictions and a composite past populated by girlfriends he now concedes were composites, too.
This new piece of his composite history was found by the website Breitbart.com, and disclosed not in support of the birther cult but as another factoid in the life of the composite president. Breitbart.com, in fact, takes pains to say that, like nearly everyone else in America, it’s satisfied now that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, while his mother’s beating heart was still in Kenya, or Indonesia, or Upper Volta, or Lower Slobbovia or some other pure and noble corner of the Third World.
The convenience of a composite past is that it is a past made up almost entirely of “factoids,” a word coined by the novelist Norman Mailer to describe something that looks like a fact, sounds like a fact but is in fact not a fact. Factoids are easily adjusted and often make up the entire conversation in Washington. Factoids are the main ingredient in press agentry. Mr. Obama’s biographical sketch describes Mr. Obama’s mother as “an anthropologist” and his father as “a Kenyan finance minister,” though his mother had only studied anthropology in university and his father was little more than a clerk in the Kenyan finance ministry. This was as fanciful as the factoid that Mr. Obama was “born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia and Hawaii.”
But in the circles where young Obama moved when he was just out of Harvard, a birth in a place closer to the equator was more to be desired than birth in capitalist, imperialist and racist America — even if in Hawaii, separated from the American mainstream by hundreds of miles of ocean and the centuries of tradition, sacrifice and westward migration that populated the continental states.
Young Barack’s best pal just after he left Harvard Yard was a Pakistani, and if young Barack nursed ambitions to one day run for president of the United States, he probably didn’t know that the Constitution requires the president to be a “natural-born” citizen. He was a graduate of Harvard Law, after all, and it’s unfair to assume that he had been exposed to the Constitution by his professors there. For whatever reason, he did not correct his agent’s literary confection and as late as 2007 his biographical sketch still boasted of a Kenyan birth.
The man who skillfully employs distraction and division in his campaign for re-election no doubt welcomes the resurrection of this old brochure, since he’s the only one who profits by the “disclosure,” such as it is. The red-hots on the right-most margin of the conservative movement, loosely defined, will be encouraged to distract attention from the discussion Mr. Obama fears most, a campaign on his competence and capacity to lead and govern.
A composite past is fashionable this year in certain political circles. Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat trying to unseat the Republican incumbent in Massachusetts, concocted a splendid past from her native Oklahoma, describing herself as 1/32 Cherokee Indian. (Polite folk call her 1/32d “Native American,” of course, but that risks offending the Cherokees, a noble fighting race whose braves take considerable pride in the word “Indian.”)
Her story unraveled, just as the president’s boast of Kenyan birth unraveled, to considerable mirth and merriment. When Mrs. Warren contributed a Cherokee recipe for Oklahoma Crab Mayonnaise for a cookbook called “Pow Wow Chow,” she invited skepticism that crabs were native to Oklahoma. Columnist Mark Steyn rose gallantly to her defense, suggesting that crabs are even celebrated in the state song (“Ooooooklahoma, where the crabs come sweepin’ down the plain … “)
Kenyan births and crabs from Oklahoma certainly seem unlikely. But those are their stories, and they’re sticking to all of them.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.