Trip Down Memory Lane, With the Birthers and Mad Magazine

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Back in 2009, when I was living in China, I was digging into the birther issue. This was before Donald Trump made it his own. But it reflects part of the genius of Trump’s multi-year birther crusade. Let’s think about the fundamental idiocy of the line that the Republican nominee was pushing for many years. Here’s the 2009 post:

I don’t know whether the birthers are petering out on their own. If they’re still around, here’s an additional challenge for them that springs from the glory days of Mad magazine.

A friend has recalled a classic Mad riff from its “Strangely Believe It!” series, produced by comedian Ernie Kovacs in the late Fifties as a knock-off of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It concerned—well, see for yourself, in this detail of a scan of the original page, courtesy of Scott Gosar at TheMadStore.

MadMag.jpg

The punch line—hardee har!—is that news of the baby girl’s birth had to be telegrammed to her mother, who had missed the plane on which the surprise birth occurred.

What’s the connection to the birthers? If Barack Obama had actually been born in Kenya, then his mother would have to have been in Kenya too! I don’t think anyone has dreamed of suggesting that his mother was other than the one he has always claimed, Stanley Ann Dunham. Presumably somewhere in the passport records of the United States or Kenya is information about whether his mother (a) left the United States, or (b) entered Kenya in 1961 when her son was born. If she didn’t leave the United States, including the fully-fledged state of Hawaii, in the summer of 1961, then by definition her child has to have been a natural-born U.S. citizen.

I recognize that if this were a matter of—how do we say?—“reality” or “facts,” it would have been settled long ago, as it has been for everyone except the birther stalwarts. But this is an interesting additional angle worth considering; plus, it’s great to see these detailed old Mad drawings.

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So the point is, for Obama to have been born in Kenya, his mother would have had to get there. And there has never been any evidence of any sort that she left Hawaii in the summer of 1961. Good to have a major-party nominee admit it after many years of suggesting the reverse.