by Rosemarie Ostler on May 6, 2011
The obsession with President Obama's birth certificate, still not completely laid to rest, is an extreme version of a tactic that has marked American politics since the days of the Founding Fathers: questioning whether a political opponent is a "real" American. It was first employed more than 200 years ago when Thomas Jefferson ran against President John Adams in 1800.
Because Jefferson had sympathized with the French Revolution, his enemies labeled him a "Franco-maniac" and secret Jacobin. Anti-Jefferson newspapers predicted an American Reign of Terror if Jefferson became president. One editorial warned that "the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes." Rep. Fisher Ames of Massachusetts claimed that "the people would be crushed . . . as in France." An absurd rumor spread that, if elected, Jefferson planned to confiscate Bibles.
Jefferson was elected in spite of his Frenchness, but a similar accusation may have helped defeat Democratic candidate John Kerry in 2004. President Bush's Commerce Secretary Don Evans publicly remarked that Kerry "looks French." Conservative commentators referred to him as "Monsieur Kerry" and suggested that he was too fond of French culture. He even spoke the language. Tom DeLay, then Republican House majority leader, opened speeches with the line, "Hello, or as John Kerry might say, Bonjour." This tactic was effective because many Americans were angry at France's refusal to participate in the recent invasion of Iraq. In spite of Kerry's unquestionably American birth (in Colorado) and U.S. military service, his opponents succeeded in portraying him as not quite American enough.
Seeming too English has also been a problem, historically. It's part of the reason President Grover Cleveland lost his 1888 reelection bid against Benjamin Harrison. A Harrison supporter duped the British minister to Washington, Sir Lionel Sackville-West, into writing a letter in which he admitted that Cleveland's opposition to high tariffs made him the candidate preferred by Great Britain. When the letter became public, Harrison forces lost no time in labeling Cleveland "the English candidate." Anti-British feeling was high at the time, especially among recent Irish immigrants, so Harrison reaped a voter bonanza.
In the twentieth century, perceived sympathy for the Soviet Union was regarded as un-American. Those who disapproved of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies attacked him during his 1936 reelection campaign by calling him "the Soviet candidate." Anti-Roosevelt newspapers struck this note relentlessly. Editorials predicted that a Roosevelt victory would mean Soviets running the White House. A Chicago Tribuneheadline shouted, "MOSCOW ORDERS REDS IN U.S. TO BACK ROOSEVELT." Journalist H. L. Mencken called the president "a blood-brother of Lenin."
Roosevelt was popular enough to overcome these attacks, but accusations of pro-Soviet leanings damaged Adlai Stevenson in 1952. His opponent, Dwight Eisenhower, slammed the Democratic platform as "un-American." Eisenhower's running mate, Richard Nixon, told audiences that the Russians were hoping for a Democratic victory in November. A war hero like Eisenhower was obviously more of a real American than a candidate who seemed to identify with the Reds.
Recent questions about President Obama's birthplace have taken accusations of "un-Americanness" a step farther. No matter how French Kerry may have looked to Republicans in 2004, no one suggested that he was, literally, not an American. President Obama's unusual background, however, gives his opponents an unprecedented opportunity to suggest that he isn't American enough.
Obama was born in Hawaii—the first president to be born outside of the 48 contiguous states. Despite the recent release of his long-form birth certificate, many "birthers" still doubt that Obama was actually born in Hawaii, but even some of those who accept that he was born there aren't sure that it quite counts. Americans still often think of Hawaii as an exotic place, even though people born in Hawaii have been considered native-born Americans since a territorial government was established there in 1900. Hawaii became a state in 1959, but in a 2009 Public Policy poll, 6 percent of the respondents believed Hawaii was not a state and 4 percent were unsure.
Further muddying the waters for Obama are a father from Kenya and some childhood years spent in Indonesia. Some of Obama's opponents have written about his supposed Islamic schooling in Jakarta, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has spoken of his "Kenyan, anti-colonial" worldview.
The message from those who label politicians as un-American is clear: Real American candidates come from conventional American backgrounds. They don't speak foreign languages fluently or sympathize with foreign political systems or cultures. Until 2008 it was understood that American presidential candidates were also male and white. From that perspective, the flap over President Obama's un-American birthplace and childhood home might actually signal progress of a sort. Americans have come far enough to elect a black man with an unconventional life story, but not yet far enough to feel universally comfortable about it.
Rosemarie Ostler writes about the cultural history of American English. Her book, "Slinging Mud: Rude Nicknames, Scurrilous Slogans, and Insulting Slang from Two Centuries of American Politics," will be published by Perigee Books in September.