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The marginalization of a president: Will it end with Obama?

By David Gergen and Mike Zuckerman
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Some 'birthers' still not satisfied
  • David Gergen and Mike Zuckerman say Obama isn't the first to face delegitimizing issues
  • Politicians and public figures throughout history have fought vilification, they say
  • This also isn't the first time Obama has been attacked, they note
  • But they say now it's time to move on

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four U.S. presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Mike Zuckerman is a research assistant for Gergen. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College in 2010.

(CNN) -- Once again, our country seems to be mired in a tired, frustrating conversation about President Obama's citizenship. Seems like we've been down this road before.

This time, the prime (and prime time) culprit is Donald Trump. He has seen his poll numbers rise and played the American public by latching on to the absolutely bogus myth that the 44th president of the United States may not have been born in the USA. And by doing so, he's just the latest in a string of presidential conspiracy theorists.

In fact, ever since then-Sen. Obama burst onto the scene, there have been efforts to delegitimize him in the eyes of the public. We have heard suggestions that he was born everywhere, from here to (just east of) Timbuktu. We have heard Obama called a "secret Muslim" and a radical Christian. We have heard that he "pals around with terrorists" and that he's a closeted socialist with deep-seated anti-colonial rage bent on taking down the United States of America from within. So it's not hard to understand why the satirical newspaper The Onion joked that a sizeable minority of Americans are now fearful that the president is, in fact, "a cactus."

Today, President Obama put it to rest. Or at least he tried to.

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He asked his lawyers to persuade the Hawaii Department of Health to bend their rules and release his long-form birth certificate, a document that ended up having about as much scandalous copy as the back of a box of Girl Scout cookies.

But no sooner did the president release his birth certificate than the leading lights of the "birther movement" lined up to take shots at their next target. Now they're questioning Obama's Social Security number, the use of his grandparents' address in his birth announcement, and the identification of his father's race as "African" on the birth certificate. They even wonder, out loud, about his undergraduate grade point average at Occidental College. When he was 19. (For the record, Obama went on to Columbia University and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School.)

Will this "sideshow" -- to use the president's term -- ever end? History, unfortunately, isn't on his side.

Why Obama is not first 'imposter' president and won't be the last

This pattern of vilifying one's political opponents is as old as the republic itself. John Adams, for example, our second president and by all accounts a decent and patriotic man, several times called our first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, who had been born out of wedlock, "the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler."

As CNN's John Blake noted last year, President Rutherford B. Hayes was regularly referred to as "His Fraudulency" after winning the presidency in the disputed election of 1876. And all this fuss about Obama's birth certificate bears a striking resemblance to what happened to another black U.S. politician.

As The Atlantic's Garrett Epps points out -- drawing on the research of legal scholar and law professor Richard Primus -- America's first black U.S. senator, Hiram Revels, had his swearing-in delayed for several days because Democrats in the chamber said he had not yet been "nine years a citizen of the United States," as required by Article II of the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment -- the one that guaranteed citizenship to black Americans -- had only been ratified two years earlier, in 1868.

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Despite this long tradition of trying to delegitimize a leader through personal attacks, these accusations reached a more frenzied pitch in the last few decades. President Lyndon Johnson was dogged by conspiracy theories that he played a role in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, accusations that made it all the way onto Oliver Stone's movie screens in the '90s.

While President Bill Clinton was in office, we heard crackpot theories ranging from airplanes loaded with cocaine on the tarmac in Mena, Arkansas, to the unending cries of foul play regarding Clinton confidante Vince Foster's 1993 suicide (a 1995 Time-CNN poll, conducted during the Senate hearings into the matter, found that only 35% of adults were convinced it was a suicide).

And who could forget the claims that President George W. Bush allowed -- or even ordered -- the 9/11 attacks? Ross Douthat noted last year that a third of Democrats, as late as 2007, still believed Bush had prior knowledge of the plot. Incredible.

11 political myths and conspiracy theories

It is often easier to attack a person's character than it is to fight it out on the merits of his or her policies. And, as we've already seen, even with Obama's long-form birth certificate in the open, more questions will arise. But they aren't the questions we should be asking. The questions we should be asking are the tough questions: How do we create more jobs in America? How do we seize control of our spiraling deficits? How do we remain competitive as a nation in the century ahead? The conspiracy questions might be easier to ask, and they might score points for the people who ask them, but they don't score points for this republic.

Like plenty of conspiracy theorists before them, the birthers have had their day in court. President Obama called their bluff and showed his cards, producing the documentation they requested. And so here it is.

Now it is time for us to turn our attention back to the real questions that need answers. It's time to move on.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen and Mike Zuckerman.

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