Opinion: Founding Fathers versus ‘birthers’ -- smackdown!

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Now that all this ‘birther’ foolishness is finally settled -- excepting the same pitiable core percentage that also may suspect magic tricks are the work of Satan (see my colleague Mark Barabak’s story about conspiracy thinking) -- I thought I’d go back for a look at the actual birther-y presidential candidate, the one who really was born in a foreign country.

Was there, in 1968, the same cacophonous, venomous ranting about whether that man was eligible to be president?


In a word, no.

George Romney, father of the latest entry in the GOP presidential sweepstakes, Mitt Romney, and a Republican governor of Michigan, was incontrovertibly born in Mexico, in a Mormon settlement founded by polygamists, including Romney’s grandfather, in the 19th century.

When George Romney sounded out his run for president in 1968 there was virtually no fuss raised about the constitutional requirement that a president be a ‘natural-born citizen,’ which had been taken to mean being born on American soil.

Even the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who questioned the matter in a New York law journal didn’t argue that Romney was de facto disqualified. He simply asked that a commission decide one way or another before the party nominating convention.

Romney’s camp was feeling anxious enough in January 1968 to ask Oregon to make a quick ruling on his eligibility for its primary ballot so there would be no question of his standing before the New Hampshire primary a few weeks later.

Romney ended up out of the race for far different reasons -- just look for ‘brainwashing and George Romney’ -- but not before New York’s Republican governor and fellow presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller declared with rather astonishing comity, ‘Gov. Romney and all of his friends are satisfied that he is qualified. I don’t see why you need a commission.’ Constitutional law by the buddy system.

The matter had raised scarcely a ripple four years earlier during GOP Sen. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign -– he was born in Arizona when it was a territory, not a state -– nor when it came to the 1980 presidential aspirations of Connecticut Republican Lowell Weicker, who was a son of Americans but was born in [epoustouflant!] Paris. And John McCain has run for president several times, most notably as the party’s 2008 nominee, and at the same time Barack Obama’s birth credentials were being questioned, McCain’s birth on a military base in the Panama Canal Zone seemed to trouble almost no one. A provision of the U.S. Code makes it clear that a child born in the zone to a U.S. citizen-parent was a ‘citizen,’ but did that mean a ‘natural-born’ citizen? Arnold Schwarzenegger is a U.S. citizen, but clearly not constitutionally qualified to be president [apart from other stupefying disqualifiers of his own creating].

It is those cases -– not President Obama’s -– that raise still-unaddressed constitutional questions about what ‘natural-born’ really means.

The birthers can’t have it both ways. Set aside the ludicrous Obama ‘out-of-Africa’ absurdity; those who acknowledge that Obama was born in Hawaii have still tried to argue his ineligibility to be president, stating that although his mother was a Kansan, his father [in the U.S. on a student visa] was from Kenya, and their son was not therefore a citizen.

Following that logic, which is as twisted as Princess Beatrice’s royal wedding hat, if having even one foreign-born parent disqualifies a person born within the United States from the presidency, then why are some birthers and conservative groups also so incensed about children being born in this country to Mexican parents who are here illegally?

The battle to unravel that 14th Amendment provision centers on the fact that babies born in the U.S. are U.S. citizens, even if their parents had crossed the border illegally the day before.

So, because any child born in the U.S. is de facto a citizen, these fringe folk have argued themselves into a corner. Obama was born in Hawaii and is therefore a citizen, wherever his father came from [and the senior Obama came here legally].

If President Obama isn’t a citizen for that reason, then neither are all of those babies born in this country to illegal immigrants, and that knocks the pins out from under the clamor to undo the 14th Amendment.

Isn’t this constitutional wrangling grand? Why, just the other day, Herman Cain, the Georgia businessman and radio host who was definitely born in the United States, declared his own candidacy for the Republican nomination for president, saying, ‘We don’t need to rewrite the Constitution of the United States. We need to reread the Constitution and enforce the Constitution … for the benefit for those that are not going to read it because they don’t want us to go by the Constitution, there’s a little section in there that talks about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

Except that ‘little section’ about ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ isn’t in the Constitution, the document Mr. Cain is exhorting us to read. It’s in the Declaration of Independence.


See Mitt Romney flip-flop

Jonah Goldberg: A sharper GOP field

Tim Rutten: A religious ‘test’ for Mitt Romney

Doyle McManus: Shifting sands of religion and politics

Will Mitt Romney’s religion derail his political ambitions?

-- Patt Morrison

Photos, from top: In 1947, George Romney holds young Mitt, who was born earlier that year; the floor of the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami. Credits: Romney family; Associated Press