We share President Obama's exasperation about the persistent rumor that he wasn't born in the United States, and we hope his release of his long-form birth certificate Wednesday will disabuse many Americans of their belief in this preposterous urban legend. But we're under no illusion — and neither is Obama — that the rumor will be entirely quelled. "I know that there's going to be a segment of people for which, no matter what we put out, this issue will not be put to rest," the president said at an extraordinary briefing.
That "segment" may turn out to be sizable. A shocking number of Americans give credence to the utterly unfounded notion that the president was born outside the United States — in Kenya, by some accounts — and smuggled into Hawaii, where his birth documents were fabricated. A CBS/New York Times poll released this month found that a quarter of all Americans think Obama was not born in the United States. Among Republicans and "tea party" supporters, the figure was 45%.
Explanations abound for the traction this conspiracy theory has achieved (the conspiracy consists of supposed efforts by the White House to conceal the "facts"). Obama's exotic background, his schooling abroad, the middle name Hussein and, yes, his race all contribute to the perception among some Americans that the president is "other." Marry that to a generic interest in conspiracies, economic anxiety that encourages such beliefs and the changing demographics of the country and you have the "birther" view of reality. But mainstream public figures are also complicit in the theory's staying power, not just the "carnival barkers" mentioned by the president, perhaps a reference to Donald Trump.
For example, in February, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said he would take the president "at his word" that he was an American and a Christian but that he didn't see it as his responsibility to try to convince others of those propositions. "[I]t's not my job to tell the American people what to think," Boehner said. "The American people have the right to think what they want to think."
Boehner and other political figures should make it clear to their constituents that for them the case is closed. They should treat birthers with the same contempt visited upon "truthers," who claim that the U.S. government was implicated in 9/11. Conspiracy theories have long lives, especially in the age of the Internet. But they shouldn't be abetted by leaders who know better.