Thursday, May 31, 2012

Birthers have been around longer than we think.

In March, I pointed out that a lot of what we call politics is really a non-cartoon example of Mad Magazine's "Spy vs. Spy." As I noted then, this is not an original thought.  However, Reuters has another example of this phenomenom. Democrats used to be birthers. Of course, they were not questioning whether President Obama is a natural born citizen. Instead they were questioning whether George Romney, Mitt Romney's father, was eligible to become president of the United States.

It turns out that George Romney, governor of Michigan during the 1960s, was a candidate for the Republican Presidential ticket for the 1968 election (Richard Milhous Nixon was the eventual nominee and ultimately won the election).

According to the article, questions about whether George Romney was eligible to become president were raised almost as soon as he began his campaign. This is because George Romney was born in Mexico. Mr. Romney's parents were citizens of the United States.

Like President Obama, the Romney birthers included members of the United States House of Representatives. In May 1967, democratic congressman Emmanuel Celler, chairmen of the House Judiciary Committee, expressed "serious doubts" about George Romney's eligibility. Celler, by the way, was a member of Congress from March 1923 to January 1973. The article also points out that an unnamed democratic congressmen inserted a lengthy treatise into the Congressional Record in which a government lawyer - writing in a "personal capacity" - argued that Mr. Romney was ineligible for the White House because he was born outside U.S. territory.

In fact, the Congressional Research Service-part of the Library of Congress which provides impartial, authoritative research to members of Congress-researched the issue and concluded that the definition of "natural born citizen" included someone whose parents were U.S. Citizens. You may recall that the CRS published a paper on this topic that reached the same conclusion in November.

I could not find any examples of specific politicians taking opposite positions on the two birther controversies. That is unsurprising given the length of time between George Romney's birther problem and President Obama's. Some might conclude that these controversies show the truth of Marx's statement that history repeats itself (although in this case both times as farce).  I think they show that one should never underestimate how quickly people will start looking for loony and/or hyper-technical reasons to explain the possibility that their side might lose.


  1. In both cases I don't see so much wrong with people questioning the citizenship status of the presidential candidate -- it is a constitutional requirement, after all. What I have a problem with is the stupid constitutional requirement. I think it made sense in the aftermath of a revolutionary war as a way to make sure the British didn't sneak their way back into power. But nowadays it is just an anachronism.

    Regarding the Congressional Research Service, I happened to run across this gem in a publication of theirs while doing some research the other day:

    "As a general rule, government agencies contract with the lowest qualified responsible bidder or offeror."

    Unless the government is really trying to contract with the "lowest qualified" contractors, clear drafting does not seem to be among the CRS's strengths; so I wonder how much faith to put in their "authoritative" interpretations of the constitution.

  2. But how much questioning should be done of the candidates on this point? After all, Trump, Taitz, and their ilk, are still out there claiming that the President is not a citizen (the article isn't clear on how long this went on for George Romney).

  3. It's certainly fair game to criticize people for continuing to question whether Obama is a "natural born citizen," because any person of good faith who looked into it would conclude that he is. Which is why no serious person of good faith is pursuing the issue.

    For Obama there was a fact question: where was he born—Kenya or Hawai'i? There was some reason to think he might have been born in Kenya, as the son of a Kenyan, has a Kenyan half-sister, and his first book's dust jacket said he was born there. But he has produced records that erase all doubt that he was born in Hawai'i, so any further pursuit of this issue is in bad faith (or evidence of an unsound mind). But if it were true that he'd been born in Kenya, it seems relatively uncontroversial that he'd be barred from being elected president.

    For Romney there was no fact question—all agree he was born in Mexico. The question was a legal one: is someone board abroad to US Citizen parents a "natural born citizen" under the Constitution? As Mr. Gillette notes, the CRS said yes, and that makes a lot of sense. But it's not self-evident, and you can continue to pursue the contrary argument in good faith, it seems to me.


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