The Drum (ABC online)

By John Barron

An extraordinary thing happened in American politics this week; a sitting president was forced to prove he is an American citizen - and thus eligible to be in office.

In unscheduled remarks at the White House on Wednesday, president Obama said that in the almost two and a half years since his election he had watched "with bemusement" the way the issue "had kept on going". President Obama, looking like a slightly exasperated teacher still forcing a strained smile, said the issue was a distraction, and that "we do not have time for this kind of silliness" from "sideshows and carnival barkers".

Despite sighing he had better things to do (such as, it turned out, flying to Chicago for a taping of Oprah) he did however bow to the key demand of the "barkers" and produce a verified copy of the long-form of his birth certificate.

The original "Certificate of Live Birth" was issued at the time of Barack Hussein Obama's arrival by the State of Hawaii at the Kapiolani Hospital, Honolulu, on August 4 1961, and the short-form has been freely available to anyone who cared to see it for years. It is that version of the certificate that is legally required to get a driver's licence or a passport, or indeed, prove eligibility for elected office.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, a copy of Obama's "short birth certificate" was framed and kept in the Obama machine's Chicago headquarters - in an attempt to dispel what had already become a widespread internet-based conspiracy theory about his nationality that had spread from fringe blogs to become an issue on mainstream cable news. It was shown to reporters, and became something of a symbol for all of the dumb things that are claimed in political campaigns.

But despite that legal proof, some "birthers" refused to accept Obama was American. They tend to believe Obama was either born in his father's homeland Kenya, or his stepfather's native Indonesia, not Hawaii - thus making him constitutionally ineligible to be president of the United States.

Earlier this year a Rasmussen poll found almost 20 per cent of Americans think Obama is secretly a foreign-born Muslim. Those Americans found a vocal champion recently in the form of flamboyant businessman and potential Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump - whose poll numbers have shot up from just 2 per cent in January, to (you'll not be surprised to learn) almost 20 per cent today.

For the past six weeks or so, Trump has been demanding to see the "long certificate". He said he'd sent private detectives to Hawaii to look into it, and speculated on Fox News that the unreleased document may prove Obama is a Muslim. Even the Reverend Franklin Graham, the Evangelist son of the Evangelist Billy, joined the chorus just before Easter by asking "why can't he produce [it]?"

He could, and has, but to understand why he did only after so many months requires a little political time travel.

It's August 2004, the war in Iraq isn't going well and George W Bush's approval ratings have fallen into dangerous territory for a re-election year. Democratic Senator John Kerry has just been endorsed at his party's National Convention as their presidential candidate, giving a stiff salute while telling the nation he was "reporting for duty".

In the weeks after his nomination, Kerry's campaign staff decided not to respond to claims from a previously unknown group calling itself "Swift Boat veterans for Truth" who contended in a series of TV ads that Lt Kerry was not the Vietnam War hero he'd been given a Silver Star for being. He was a coward who stabbed his comrades in the back when he returned home and denounced the war. To even respond, Kerry's campaign team decided, would not only dignify the contemptible charge, but give oxygen to the flame. For one long month Kerry refused to go on the air and reject the claims. People believed what they heard on TV, Kerry's approval rating plummeted and his campaign never recovered. The lesson to Democrats was simple; hit back at every lie, or the lie takes hold and becomes the truth in some people's minds. Obama's campaign took the lesson to heart in 2008, but since then the lingering "birther" claims seemed just too silly for words.

Shortly after president Obama finally released the more medically-detailed "long version" of his birth certificate to the White House press corps this week, Donald Trump was landing his private helicopter (with TRUMP emblazoned in large letters on the side) in the politically influential state of New Hampshire. "The Donald" immediately called a press conference and said he was "very proud" of himself for forcing the president to "finally release a birth certificate".

He added that while he wants to see it for himself and that "he hopes it's true".

It was as if there had never been the standard "short" certificate.

But even as Trump was expressing his simultaneous doubts yet a desire to put the issue behind him and, like the president, move on to more important issues, the "blogosphere" was firing up again;



Only time will tell whether the "birthers" will now start to seem as silly as the "Elvis lives" crowd, as dangerous as Holocaust-deniers or just as deluded as Donald Trump's presidential aspirations.

But while the extreme anti-Obama folks (who I suspect are really saying "I don't like a black man being president" when they answer those poll questions about where he was born or what his religion is) deserve a certain amount of contempt, the media must take its share of the blame.

As newsrooms in the United States and elsewhere are stripped of journalists, and those who remain become cut-price commentators who trawl the internet for a controversial issue to shovel into the 24-hour news cycle, stories like this one, as provably wrong as it is, will rise again like the un-dead.

The internet is full of sites spouting crackpot ideas, but why should some of us in the media fan the flame?

John Barron presents the Morning Program on ABC NewsRadio, and covers US Politics on ABC radio and TV. He is also a Research Associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.