The Secret Origin of the Birthers explained how the 'Obama was born in Kenya' rumor began. But how did it get from a passing comment on FreeRepublic to a widespread rumor that drove the release of Obama's Certification of Live Birth? How do we know that it was those March 2008 posts that drove the later rumors?
Although he took a decisive lead in the delegate count in late February, Barack Obama did not clinch the Democratic nomination until June 3. He then became the first African American to be nominated for the Presidency by a major American party. It took less than a week for his detractors, both extremist right-wingers and disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters, to latch onto a theory that attempted to delegitimize that nomination. Within a matter of days, hundreds of bloggers and commenters were newly promoting or repeating the previously nonexistent debate over Obama’s birth and Presidential eligibility.
The source of this sudden shift in interest was the single post of a political blogger at the National Review Online. And the tipping was not only unintentional, it was precisely the opposite effect of the writer had hoped for. Jim Geraghty is a conservative activist who blogs at NRO. Starting in May 2008, he began blogging about his skepticism over rumors of a supposed tape of Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle, where she was “railing against whitey,” said rumors being spread by avid Hillary Clinton-supporter Larry Johnson. It was a nasty rumor that was among the very first items on the Obama campaign’s FightTheSmears.com website (the birth certificate being another).
Still, while all the Obama camp could do was deny the rumor, it was Geraghty who truly killed it. On June 6, Geraghty observed that the story “sounds like something out of a clichéd political thriller novel. Actually, it sounds exactly like something out of a clichéd political thriller novel.” And Geraghty then pointed readers to a 2006 novel, The Power Broker, about a Democratic Senator on his way to becoming the first African-American President, whose opponents locate a tape of him ‘railing against whitey,’ and choose to hold onto it as an October Surprise.
Geraghty also observed that story-propounder Larry Johnson had been wildly inconsistent in his details of the alleged tape, and that Johnson had been vulgar in response to inquiries from Reason Magazine regarding those inconsistencies, and he declared the rumor dead. And so, one early ugly rumor about the Democratic Presidential candidate was quelled by a Republican.
Three days later, on June 9, 2008 Geraghty tried taking on another round of unfounded rumors. But these were rumors that he, on his own, couldn’t defeat, and so he called on the Obama campaign to release the one document that could do the job.
Geraghty noted three specific rumors, all of which he deemed “unlikely.” First, that Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii. Such a cover-up, Geraghty noted, would require Obama and every family member to have lied consistently for decades. Second, that Obama’s middle name was “Muhammed,” and not “Hussein," a rumor that had continued to circulate even after PolitiFact collected and published Obama’s various public records. Third, that Obama’s legal first name at birth was “Barry,” not Barack.
So Geraghty asked the Obama campaign to debunk all this nonsense in one fell swoop, by releasing his birth certificate. Some people have accused Geraghty of merely stoking rumors, but the “whitey” incident suggests otherwise. As he stated, he didn’t want conservatives clinging to unfounded stories as their last-ditch hope for the election, and so cutting down those rumors early served his interests as much as Obama’s. And in a very significant sense, it worked; the Obama campaign published Barack’s birth certificate on the web on June 12, and Obama’s birth certificate and related rumors failed to become issues in the campaign, for either the parties or the candidates or the overwhelming majority of the electorate.
But despite Geraghty’s explicit skepticism about the rumors, and about the Kenyan birth one in particular, they still managed to find an audience with whom they resonated. Moreover, by appearing on the website of National Review Online (along with an able assist by Michelle Malkin, who reposted the rumor on her popular site), the Kenyan birth rumor managed to reach a much wider audience it they had before. A rumor that had been repeated fewer than twenty times in its three months of existence, with most of the repeating coming from an even smaller handful of individuals, suddenly was published on dozens and even hundreds of different websites within a matter of days. Malkin’s post alone drew 168 comments in under two days, and received 46 trackbacks from other websites.
FreeRepublic started its first thread devoted to the rumor on June 10. WorldNetDaily published its first article about Obama’s eligibility on the same day. Websites like Atlas Shrugs, TexasDarlin, and Larry Johnson’s NoQuarter, which all served as leaders of the early Birther movement (long before they were even dubbed “Birthers”), all ran their first Birther-related stories after June 9. Literally overnight, rumors about Obama’s birth and eligibility went from being impossibly obscure to practically commonplace, and a document that only a handful of people had ever suggested be released was suddenly the subject of urgent demands of transparency all over the web.
In fact, one thing that stands out in retrospect is how insignificant the issue of Obama’s birth certificate had been before June 9, 2008. Those with selective memories (and possessing a selective memory is among the chief qualifications for being a Birther) claim that there were months of demands to see Obama’s birth certificate before he finally ceded and posted an image online. Oftentimes, these are the same people whose memories tell them that the rumors about Obama’s birth began back in 2007 or earlier.
To the contrary, demands for Obama’s birth certificate were few and far between before Jim Geraghty suggested that one be produced. The post at NRO not only served to tip the Kenyan birth rumor, it also tipped the demand for Barack’s birth certificate.
There was only one formal, publicly announced request for the President’s birth certificate prior to Geraghty’s, and it is the same one Geraghty himself notes. PolitiFact.com, the online fact-checking arm of the St. Petersburg Times, stated on May 2, 2008 that they had requested a copy of Obama’s birth certificate in the course of their debunking of the rumors about Obama’s middle name. But PolitiFact said that the campaign would not release that particular document, and that Hawaii did not make such records public.
The reaction to PolitiFact’s statement was thundering silence. The blogosphere did not explode with demands for a birth certificate, and message boards were not filled with threads calling for disclosure. In the weeks between PolitiFact stating “We tried to obtain a copy of Obama's birth certificate, but his campaign would not release it,” and Geraghty’s post suggesting the birth certificate be released, only a handful of individuals so much as noted Obama’s absentee birth certificate, much less demanded it. None came from a journalist or even a prominent pundit or blogger.
Instead, the only requests for Barack’s birth certificate prior to June 2008 came from unremarkable bloggers and message board posters. The earliest such requests were in February 2008,* as the question of McCain’s eligibility got its initial press. And it was not allegations of a foreign birth that drove those earliest requests; it was unfounded speculation over Obama’s first name and middle name.
On March 5, 2008, conservative blogger “velvethammer,” posting on his site Ironic Surrealism, made a post entitled “Wanted: Barack Hussein Obama’s Birth Certificate.” The author claims the post was made “(mostly) tongue in cheek,” and he didn’t raise any particular conspiracy theories about what allegedly harmful information the document might contain. Instead, he glossed over the question rather quickly and moved onto other Obama questions, such as the spectre of dual citizenship and split loyalties.
The value in velvethammer’s post is in the post’s comments, as they offer some insight into what the national conversation over Obama’s birth certificate actually looked like in the first half of 2008. A handful of commenters in March admitted they would be interested in seeing a birth certificate, a handful more accuse him of not being a true Christian, and one person demanded to see his baptism records.
A couple of people raise the legal name accusation, suggesting that the birth certificate might list his first name as “Barry” or his last name as “Dunham.” A few throw around some gossip about his parents, particularly the allegation that they weren’t married when he was born.
But one thing is noticeably absent from the early comments at this site: none of them accuse Barack of having been born in Kenya. Not a single one. The first comment to make such an allegation came on June 9, the same day as Jim Geraghty’s post at NROnline.
The comments section also supports viewing Geraghty’s June 9 post as the tipping point of Birtherism. Velvethammer’s post attracted 21 posts during the three months between March 5 and June 8, with a third of those coming from the author himself. Then, suddenly, there were 19 comments on June 10 ALONE. By the end of June 12 there were another 36 comments. And whereas only a single blog had linked back to the post in the ten weeks after it was made, June 10 saw seven trackbacks in a single day.
Still, if there was any talk at all about Obama’s birth or eligibility or his birth certificate that had mustered any attention prior to June 2008, there’s one place it would be absolutely guaranteed to appear: Jerome Corsi’s “The Obama Nation.”
“The Obama Nation,” published in mid-2008, is practically a reference book for anti-Obama rumors, smears and accusations. Corsi spends two pages ruminating on which part of Jakarta young Obama might have grown up in, under the premise that it would say something negative about his step-father’s financial status. A whole chapter is devoted to wild speculation about Obama’s ties to Kenyan politicians, which is full of enough half-truths and unsupported allegations that it sets the high-water mark of wrong for the entire book. And the entire middle third of the book is about the misdeeds and misbehavior of people Obama knew in Chicago. It would seem reasonable to assume, then, that if questions about Obama’s birth and his Constitutional eligibility had been circulating before and during the primaries, they would be front and center in “The Obama Nation.” Corsi claims in the Preface that he “finalized the decision to write this book in March 2008,” and the book mentions dozens of specific events that took place up through May 2008, so a controversy raging since the year before shouldn’t have escaped his not-so-discriminating eye.
And in fact, Corsi does talk about Obama’s birth. On page 17, he writes:
“Obama Junior was born on August 4, 1961.”
But that’s pretty much it. Every time Corsi references Obama's birth in "The Obama Nation," he treats it as straight, uncontroverted fact. In over 300 pages, Corsi never questions when, where, or to whom Barack Hussein Obama II was born. He never so much as hints at a dispute over Obama’s eligibility or status as a natural-born citizen.** Corsi devoted an entire sub-chapter to accusing Obama of using movie quotes in his speeches, but Obama’s birth and citizenship was a complete non-issue even to him. That’s because he finished putting his book together at the very beginning of June 2008, missing the tipping of Birtherism by only a matter of days.
This universal non-interest in Obama’s birth prior to June 9 presents its own question: how did a completely unfounded rumor make its way from a random comment on FreeRepublic to a blog post at the National Review? If Jim Geraghty wasn’t introduced to rumors about Obama’s Kenyan birth through a noteworthy rumormonger or rampant demands for a birth certificate, where did he hear it, and how did it appear worth refuting? Thankfully, he provided a source for the rumor in his June 9 post.
That source was a thread on the message boards of Snopes.com. As web-savvy readers know, Snopes is one of the internet’s premier resources on urban legends and internet myths. Popular rumors are verified or debunked in full articles with details and citations to sources; less serious submissions that don’t merit a full debunking often receive just a reposting of the submission onto the Snopes message board, for reader amusement. One such rumor posted on April 21, 2008 read as follows:
Today, we have a new matter before us. There is an article out today on the internet that says that Barack Obama's mother was living in Kenya with his Arab-African father late in her pregnancy.
She was not allowed to travel by plane then, so she Barack Obama was born there and his mother then took him to Hawaii to register his birth.
Obama is not eligible to be the President of the United States of America. This may not be proven in the next few days, but I am sure it will be proven before the General Election.
The DNC and the elite of the Democratic party should respect Hillary and not force her off the ballot. If they do, we may not even have a viable candidate.
I'm sure all this can be proven, by hospital documents and witnesses. It will take time, but Obama is not a legitimate U. S. citizen. He has citizenship established in Kenya, where he is recorded as Arab-African.
Most of the early conspiracy allegations are present in this post. Obama’s mother was specifically in Kenya late in her pregnancy. Her flight home was prohibited. She gave birth in Kenya, but then took her son home to Hawaii and registered his birth there. And it specifically asserts that he is not eligible to be President.
Curiously, the comment appears to have been written from a Democrat’s perspective, expressing concern over the viability of the likely Democratic Presidential candidate, and advocating for Hillary’s candidacy. So it was likely not a right-winger who forwarded this rumor to Snopes, but a proto-PUMA.
So what was this “article out today on the internet” that the reader saw and believed? There was no news article that presented this allegation, nor did any high-profile blog or website report it. In April 2008, speculation that Obama was born anywhere but Hawaii was still spectacularly rare, so a likely candidate readily presents itself.
The article itself was most probably a piece entitled “Obama Laundry List of Lies.” Originating at the blog "The Audacity of Hypocrisy", the list was an assemblage of poorly-sourced “lies” that Mr. Obama had allegedly made during the campaign. Audacity of Hypocrisy regularly updated its list with new items, and these different lists circulated the web, eventually attracting the interest of Snopes.
One variation of the Laundry List that was reposted around the internet was notably different than the others. This variation of the list proper ended with #68, and then continued with a seemingly unrelated two-item list:
“Obama claims special birth”
Much more so than we might believe.
1. Reports emanating from Africa allege his mother was in Kenya with his ARAB Kenyan (NOT Black Kenyan) father - this is clearly shown in Kenyan Govt. Registry documents which list the father as an Arab Kenyan - at a very late term of her pregnancy and was not allowed on a flight to return to HAWAII.
She gave birth to him in Kenya, immediately got on a plane and then registered him as being born in Hawaii.
2. He is NOT an African American at all but an Arab American and cannot claim African minority status, which by US Federal regulations require a person to have 1/8 (one eighth) of the minority blood (12%).
From his mother he has 50% white blood, from his father he has 43.25% Arab BLOOD and from his MATERNAL GRANDMOTHER he manages to hold onto 6.75% African or Black heritage blood.
He has had to duck and weave all his life and use whatever lies he could use to even “pass for Black” and the benefits that this minority status provided. So even this, while understandable - IS A documented LIE.
Here we see all of the elements present in the rumor as presented on the Snopes message board on April 21. Obama’s mother in Kenya with his father. Her pregnancy preventing her from flying. A Kenyan birth, followed by a prompt trip back to Hawaii to register the birth. The Snopes account also provides no new notable details that the Laundry List lacks; even something as basic as Ann Dunham’s name is missing from both accounts.
If there can be any doubt that this is the article the Snopes submitter saw, that is settled by the “Laundry List”s claim that Obama and his father are both “Arab,” rather than black. This singularly unusual claim is reflected in the Snopes post, where both Obama and his father are described as being “Arab-African.” Both even make reference to supposed Kenyan government records regarding this ethnic classification. This is the same rumor Alan Peters referenced in his March 5, 2008 "Ruthless Roundup" post that helped kick off the 'Born in Kenya' rumor.
Given this close symmetry of information, the Snopes submitter was almost certainly referring to a posting of this version of the “Obama Laundry List of Lies.” And indeed, the Laundry List was responsible for the biggest spread of the Kenyan Birth rumor prior to its appearance at National Review Online.
The author of this formulation of the Laundry List, with its appended birthplace and genealogical rumors, was none other than Alan Peters. He posted it on his blog “News Views” on April 3, 2008, and the same day linked to the article from another of his blogs, Anti-Mullah.
Peters obviously cribbed the core of the Laundry List from “The Audacity of Hypocrisy,” but starting with “Obama claims special birth,” everything that followed, including the Kenyan birth rumor, is Peters’ addition. So was it original to Peters, or did he cut and paste it as well?
As the seemingly irrelevant comment “Obama claims special birth” might suggest, it was in fact a cut-and-paste job. Peters copied it directly from an April 4, 2008 post by FARS at the conservative forum FreeRepublic, where it was posted in a thread that began with the 68-item version of Audacity of Hypocrisy’s Laundry List. The non-sequitur introductory comment is a remnant of the post that FARS was responding to, a satirical anecdote about Obama’s father being shot at in the Honolulu airport.
Aside from a couple of short comments, Peters’ list attracted no recorded attention at first. Then, a little over a week after it was posted online, it started to spread.
“No2liberals,” a regular poster at the site NukeGingrich.com, is an Alan Peters commenter and fan. On April 11, 2008, No2liberals posted a link to Peters’ Laundry List post in the comments section of a NukeGingrich post. Included alongside it was a link to someone claiming that Obama was “only 1/16 black.” He would link to it again the next day in a comments thread at the blog "A Future In Freedom", and a third time in a comment left at the blog "Gates of Vienna" on April 16.
Another commenter in the Gates of Vienna thread was VinceP1974, a then 33-year-old Chicagoan who maintains a website entitled the “Islamo-American War Site.”*** The Laundry List must have appealed to Vince, because he promptly turned around and posted it in the comments of other blogs in the wee hours of April 17, including “neo-neocon” and “The Strata-Sphere.” But not before he left some charming comments like “B Hussein Obama is not black. He's Arab and white.”
Meanwhile, Peters’ work had taken other routes of republication. It was posted to the Facebook group “Stop Barack Obama (One Million Strong & Growing)” on the evening of April 16. Then on April 17, Peters’ piece appeared simultaneously on the blogs “Not Under the Bus” and “Just a Typical White Person”, which shared a common author.
On April 20, 2008, Alan Peters’ “Obama Laundry List of Lies” was republished at “Miss Beth’s Victory Dance” and “Wake Up America”, as well as several other blogs maintained by “Miss Beth,” a/k/a Kateri Jordan of Tucson, Arizona. In all, Jordan posted the Laundry List to at least a half dozen websites, as well as posting it at Digg. The posts began by stating “This came to me in my email and I was given permission to post and spread this anywhere and everywhere I can.” This is followed with an enjoinder to “Read, memorize, swipe and publish!”
Two particular details set these versions of the List apart from earlier versions. One is the addition of a wholly unrelated item at the bottom of the List, entitled “BREAKING NEWS - ISLAMIC SUPPORT FOR Obama HUSSEIN COMING INTO THE OPEN IN CA,” and spotlighting a photograph of a Muslim woman holding a pro-Obama sign outside an Anaheim mosque. The source of this non-sequitur item? Alan Peters. From a April 2, 2008 post that Peters made to his blog “Anti-Mullah.” The other added detail was an acknowledgment, specifically crediting Alan Peters as the author of the piece.
Most of these posts were met with little response. None drew particular attention to the rumor that he was born in Kenya. But one, at the blog “Wake Up America”, received several dozen comments, including substantial discussion of the alleged Kenyan birth and the consequential eligibility matters. Most of this discussion was between Jordan and Katie Norcross of Palatine, Illinois.
Norcross quickly became perhaps the first proactive Birther, fiercely stressing Obama’s ineligibility, claiming that she had already “searched birth records and no hospital or county office has any records” (how she was doing this in Illinois is unclear ), announcing that she was starting to check Kenyan records (again, how she was doing this in Illinois is unclear), and declaring that she was running a Freedom of Information Act search for a State Department birth certificate from Kenya, all within a day or so of first hearing the rumor. She exhibits not only the Birther tendency to immediately accept a rumor as fact, but also the pseudo-intellectual bombast that allowed her to reach seemingly impossible conclusions without any cognitive dissonance. When
she stated that she had searched Hawaiian hospital records and come up empty, was she simply lying, or did she honestly believe she could peruse 1960s-era Hawaiian hospital records from her
Given Norcross’s enthusiastic conspiracism, the active comment thread, the April 20th posting date, and the fact that a handful of other websites linked back to the “Wake Up America” post, it seems probable that the “article out today on the internet” referenced in the April 21 Snopes message board post was the April 20 post Kateri Jordan made to “Wake Up America.” Although the same rumor was repeated on other sites, including other ones that Jordan posted it to, it was just item #69 in a list; what sets the post at “Wake Up America” apart is the spotlighting and discussion of the ‘Born in Kenya’ rumor in the comments. I have been unable to locate any other sites that featured such extensive discussion or debate about that singular rumor.
Regardless of the specific URL that the Snopes emailer had visited and which inspired his query, the probability is still overwhelming that the submitter was referencing someone’s republication of Alan Peters’ Laundry List post. Thus not only can it be established that Alan Peters and FARS were responsible for creating the original Kenyan birth rumor, but Peters was also responsible for spreading it across the web, where it eventually caught the attention of Jim Geraghty. And as noted previously, Peters was also responsible for first telling the lie that Obama's half-siblings had vouched for a Kenyan birth.
This was just the starting point for Birtherism, however. Other rumors developed to validate this initial rumor, or to flesh it out with additional details. Efforts were made to cast doubt on accepted facts. Opportunists hitched their wagons to the rumors, and the misinformation continued to spread.
- Copyright Loren Collins
June 23, 2011
* Interestingly one person posting alongside these early birth certificate demands is “DrRJP,” who later adopted the pseudonym “Dr. Ron Polarik.”
** Corsi specifically notes on p. 103 that Obama was born to an American mother and that "his father, who was born in Kenya and was a Kenyan citizen when Obama was born." Corsi makes no insinuations whatsoever that this genealogical fact disqualifies Obama from the Presidency. Three years later, however, Corsi has now written a book which claims that this exact same fact disqualifies Obama from the Presidency.
*** Vince also appeared in the comments of Kenneth Lamb’s February blog post debuting the 'Obama is an Arab' lie, where Vince immediately accepted that Obama is Arab and blamed the media for the cover-up.