Saturday, August 1, 2009

The birthers' allergy to fact

I have in my files a birth certificate, some kind of ancient thermal copy with the seal of the Commonwealth of Kentucky impressed in it. I also possess a passport indicating that I am a citizen of the United States. Both of these documents could well be clever forgeries, produced by some sinister cabal whose designs were to infiltrate me into my former high position in the Eastern Liberal Media Establishment.*

If you believe that, you can believe anything. If you can believe anything, you join a growing constituency.

The “birther” movement, fueled by the Internet and figures like Shouting Lou Dobbs on CNN, clamors that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii in 1961, is not a U.S. citizen, is disqualified to be president of the United States.

These claims have been exploded by public officials in Hawaii, by, and by a lengthy article by McClatchy Newspapers that casts an instructive light on some of the foremost proponents of the birther allegations. Bill Pascoe, who had the unenviable task of managing Alan Keyes’s senatorial campaign against Obama in 2004, goes so far as to suggest in an article at CQ Politics that the mainstream media are pumping up coverage of birthers to discredit conservatives and prop up the president’s poll numbers.

Never mind. A poll commissioned by Daily Kos finds that Southerners and Republicans are disproportionately receptive to the idea that the president is not a citizen. And if you go to the McClatchy article, you’ll find any number of angry, frequently incoherent comments contesting the facts.

Conspiracy theories always appeal to the credulous in unsettled times, and the left is as prone to them as the right — I recall the rumors sweeping campus in 1972 that Richard Nixon was going to cancel the presidential election to fend of the challenge from George McGovern. (You’re permitted to chuckle here.) The birther fantasy feeds readily into Embattled White Guys hysteria — Pat Buchanan and Glen Beck proclaiming that the president hates white people and white culture — that political and cultural dominance is going to be taken away from those who think it belongs to them.

Refutation, which must be done by responsible media for the record, doesn’t work. Fact does not penetrate the birther mind set. The sane man or woman is left to take the Menckenian position that the whole spectacle is to be considered a burlesque for the entertainment of the intelligent.

Just sit back and watch the spittle fly.

*“He talks funny, like somebody from up North.” “He dresses funny, wears a damn bow tie.” “He reads books and uses big words to show off.” “He sent his children to lib’ral Eastern private colleges.” “What kind of Kentuckian does he think he is?”

Those Hundred Days

This week’s book, Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America by Adam Cohen (Penguin Press, 372 pages, $29.95), recounts circumstances of Franklin Roosevelt’s first days in office that will not startle the reader who has been paying attention to the events of 2009.

They included outright reversal of the policies of a discredited preceding administration, desperate and unprecedented efforts to deal with an impending collapse of the banking system, expensive measures to deal with large-scale unemployment, expansion of federal regulation, and loud cries from conservatives, particularly Republicans, that the nation was being dragged into socialism.

Mr. Cohen’s refreshing approach is to look at those events and measures not through the lens of the president’s office, but through the efforts of five top Roosevelt advisers: Raymond Moley, who was instrumental in the rescue of the banking industry but who grew increasingly conservative and ultimately broke with Roosevelt; Lewis Douglas, FDR’s budget director, who shared Roosevelt’s impulse to curb federal spending and balance the budget but who grew bitter when the tide of the New Deal ran against him; Henry Wallace, who rescued American agriculture but whose “temporary” program of price supports proved politically impossible to dismantle; Frances Perkins, who as labor secretary helped construct the scaffolding of relief and public-works programs that has become an essential part of the nation’s structure; and Harry Hopkins, who as much as anyone helped to establish a federal role in a welfare system.

Roosevelt himself is in the background here, coming to the fore as his subordinates jockey for his attention. Conservatives will snigger at Mr. Cohen’s description of him as at heart a fiscal conservative who wanted a lean government with a balanced budget, who had to be persuaded of the merit of the most radical New Deal measures, but anyone who studies the events of his administration will see how improvisational and experimental Roosevelt’s approach was, veering from one direction to another as results and political circumstances indicated.

This is a valuable book, both in its description of the battles among the competing figures of the administration and in its brief but compelling portraits of the five figures Mr. Cohen has chosen to highlight.

I don’t want to appear churlish, but I do have to mention that the book is written in the same undistinguished journalistic prose that marked American Pharaoh, the biography of Mayor Richard J. Daley that Mr. Cohen wrote with Elizabeth Taylor. The warning signs appear in the opening words: “Edmund Wilson, the well-known writer.” If we’ve come to the lamentable point that a reader has to be told who Edmund Wilson was, then tell the reader something meaningful about him. We learn later that Roosevelt created “an alphabet soup of new agencies,” a cliche at least seventy years old, that Hell’s Kitchen in New York was a “gritty neighborhood,” and more. You get the flavor.

To get a more elegantly written account of the Hundred Days, you might want to look at
Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. It’s an excellent book.