Birth Rumors and Politics

December 7, 2008 · Leave a Comment

What do Sarah Palin and Barack Obama have in common?

They are both dogged by persistent rumors about a cover-up over births.  These rumors continue to circulate in blogs and forums on the Internet, where there is no standard of evidence or substantiation required.

You’ve surely heard the rumors, they go something like this:

  • Barack Obama is claimed to not be Hawaii-born as he has stated, but rather was born to his under-18 American mother during a trip to Kenya, which, under the laws in place at the time would mean that he is not a “natural born citizen,” making him ineligible for the Presidency.  [update: the Supreme Court refused on December 8th, 2008 to hear a case that claimed that Obama was a British citizen because of the citizenship of his father, despite his birth in Hawaii.  Read about it:  here.]
  • Sarah Palin is thought to not be the mother of Trig Palin, the baby born shortly before her Vice-Presidential run.  She is thought to be covering up for daughter Bristol, who is said to be the birth mother of the child.

I’m not going to go into the whole business of debunking these rumors.  I’ll leave that for another day.  Instead, I thought I’d toss out a few more anecdotes from history regarding rumors about birth and legitimacy as a means to ask:  “Why are Americans so hung up about issues surrounding birth and wedlock (aka the more charged “legitimacy”) when it comes to people seeking political office?”

John McCain’s candidacy against George Bush in 2000 is largely believed to have been fatally damaged by underhanded “push polling” in South Carolina, whereby potential voters were asked “hypothetically” if McCain’s fatherhood of a black child would sway their vote.  The underhanded Rovian tactic was effective not only because it played to the still virulent racism of many in the southern Republican party, but because John and Cindy McCain have an adopted dark-skinned Bangladeshi daughter, and there are many photos of the family that naturally include their daughter.

There have been widespread rumors that William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd President, was illegitimate.  Records show that his father (who died a few months before his birth) had not been granted a divorce at the time that he married Bill Clinton’s mother, thus making him illegitimate.

Stretching way back, Abraham Lincoln was dogged by rumors that he was an illegitimate child, both during his life and ever since.  The rumors appear to have started because of the lack of physical similarity between Lincoln and his father.  Several scholars have effectively debunked the myth, but still the rumors persist.  In addition, there is fairly strong evidence that Lincoln believed that his mother was illegitimate, and that this belief caused him much consternation.

One of the most famous long-running rumors surround the relationship between Renaissance man Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings.  Most historians now believe that there was an intimate relationship between the two, and that they had children together.  DNA evidence studied in 1998 concluded that descendants of Hemings possess DNA from the Jefferson family, while not positively identifying the source as Thomas Jefferson.  At the time it was fairly common for widowers like Jefferson to have sexual relationships with female slaves, but it was not formally socially acceptable and was kept from the public eye.  The fact that Thomas Jefferson had promised his first wife that he would not remarry, and she died while he was in his late 30’s provides additional evidence that such a relationship was likely.

John Edwards, Jesse Jackson, Strom Thurmond, Grover Cleveland – the list goes on and on.

On the surface there are some simple reasons why these rumors are created, whether or not they are based in truth.  To the extent that character matters, and if people are caught in blatant lies – to their spouse, to the public – their qualification for office falls into question.  In addition, illegitimate birth carries with it a very real social stigma, even today.  We seem to hold our elected representatives to nearly impossible levels of moral purity, even while disdaining or at least ignoring such standards for ourselves.  And of course politics has always been a bare-knuckled fight covered with just enough decorum to maintain a semblance of civility.  So if a claim against an opponent could help a candidate, he or she was bound to make sure that that claim gained currency.

But the most interesting thing, I think, is why Americans still have such puritanical behavioral expectations of our politicians.  This is not the case in France.  Politicians and socially prominent people have often had mistresses whom they would take out in public.  The marriage persisted, and so did the “open secret” of the affair.  Not so in America.  An affair (which is, of course, broadly speaking the precondition of an illegitimate child) is considered a major moral failing, and has ruined many careers.

I think we are rooted in this puritanical conundrum as a result of our history.  There is something in Americans culturally that makes us all feel illegitimate.  While we revel in stories of Boston Tea Parties and defeating the British, at our core we are a newly constituted people.  You needn’t dig very deep in most American’s past to find “a little bit of trailer.”  I think that because of this cultural complex of illegitimacy, we need a higher standard to believe in, one that we can believe is a reflection of our truest selves.  If we maintain the myth of moral purity through a public ritual of shaming our officials, we somehow salve that deep part in our hearts that feels like a common pretender.

Let’s hope that as a country we can grow up, deal with our demons, and move on, looking for true character traits and intelligence for those who would deign to lead us.  Let’s find the best candidates for the job and stop our self-destructive witch hunts.

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