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Discrediting anti-Obama 'birthers' is a top priority for Hawaii governor

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 03:10 p.m. HST, Dec 24, 2010



Frustrated by what he sees as a never-ending campaign to undermine President Barack Obama, Hawaii's new governor says he plans to use his new post to counter conspiracy theorists who continue to allege that the president was not born in the United States.

Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat who took office Dec. 6, has known Obama since the president's days growing up in Hawaii. He's also one of the few people who knew both Obama's father, also named Barack, and mother, Stanley Ann Dunham.

That longstanding relationship is a major reason Abercrombie, 72, takes umbrage with the persistent effort by Obama's most ardent foes to assert that he was born in Kenya, which would constitutionally bar him from holding the office of president.

"Now that I'm governor, I'm going to do something about that," Abercrombie vowed during an interview in his fifth-floor office in the state capitol. Abercrombie, who spent 19 years representing Hawaii's 1st District as one of the more liberal members of Congress, acknowledged he has not yet determined a specific remedy.

"What bothers me is that some people who should know better are trying to use this for political reasons," he said. Leaning forward from behind his desk, he added, "Maybe I'm the only one in the country that could look you right in the eye right now and tell you, 'I was here when that baby was born."'

One of Abercrombie's aides said the governor is voicing the frustration of many Hawaiians who continue to be troubled by the rumors, which they see as emblematic of the view that Hawaiians are not Americans in the same way as those who live in the continental United States.

Abercrombie's Hawaiian pride may be trumping practical politics. Ample evidence has been produced to discredit the "birther" movement, so in the view of the White House, the governor's comments are reviving an issue that most people see as resolved.

While his goal may be to support Obama, experts who study political extremism say the actual impact of additional evidence is to perpetuate the conspiracy. They say people who embrace such conspiracies are guided by suspicion, and therefore view any contrary evidence as part of the conspiracy.

Abercrombie, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., came to Hawaii in 1959 to study sociology at the University of Hawaii. As a teaching assistant, he met and befriended Obama's father, a native of Kenya.

Obama's mother was born in Kansas and met and married his father when the two were college students in Hawaii. Obama was born at Kapi'olani Maternity & Gynecological Hospital in Honolulu on Aug. 4, 1961.

But in 2008, as Obama ran for president, allegations appeared online claiming, without proof, that he was born in Kenya.

That June, the Obama campaign released a Certificate of Live Birth — an official document from the state of Hawaii Health Department certifying the facts of a person's birth — as proof of his birthplace. Investigations by two prominent fact-checking organizations, Politifact and Factcheck.org, concluded that the certificate was authentic. Factcheck also turned up a 1961 birth announcement in a local newspaper, The Honolulu Advertiser, marking the birth of a son to "Mr. and Mrs. Barack H. Obama of Kalanianaole Hwy."

But the Hawaii birth document, dated 2007 and generated at the request of the Obama campaign, was insufficient for some of Obama's detractors. They demand the release of his original birth certificate, which in Hawaii is not a public record. Several lawsuits have been filed seeking to force Obama to disclose more information, but they have been routinely dismissed by courts.

Bills have been introduced in state legislatures that would require candidates for the presidency to document that they were born in the country. One passed the Arizona House in April. Similar legislation was introduced in Congress in 2009 and failed to gain traction, but the attempt troubled Abercrombie.

"More than demonization — this is self-evisceration of politics," said Abercrombie, who raised the birthplace issue unprompted during the interview. "Empires fall and countries fall when that takes the place of discourse."

In Hawaii, the efforts to challenge Obama's birthplace still burden the state government with endless requests for further documentation, officials have said. Abercrombie's predecessor, Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, in May signed legislation that allowed the state to ignore repeated nuisance inquiries.

"If I were the governor, I would call a press conference, I'd pull out all the records I have and show the world he was born in Hawaii," said state Sen. Will Espero, a Democrat who sponsored that bill.

But the state has consistently held that releasing all of Obama's records would be a violation of its citizens' confidentiality, and that privacy rights should not be sacrificed to appease extreme views. Espero said he understands that stance and noted that the conspiracy theories have ebbed.

But the movement made news this month, when a former Army officer, LTC Terry Lakin, was dismissed from the military and sentenced to six months in prison after he refused to deploy to Afghanistan because he claimed Obama may be ineligible to serve as president.

"When you look at the certification of live birth ... you don't find the name of the doctor, hospital or signature," said prominent "birther" Orly Taitz, a California lawyer and dentist. "We've asked to see the original one that is still sealed."

Taitz said she is willing to debate Abercrombie on national television and "let the American people decide."

An Abercrombie aide said the governor has not taken action to address the birth issue because he is focusing on his transition and preparing a budget for a state facing a deficit.

Any action by Abercrombie would not be his first response to the "birther" controversy. Last year, he sponsored a congressional resolution honoring the 50th anniversary of Hawaiian statehood, which included language stating, "Whereas the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, was born in Hawaii."

It passed unanimously.

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