WASHINGTON The false allegation that President Barack Obama was born in another country is more than a fact-free smear.

Marked by accusations and back-stabbing, it's the story of how a small but intense movement called "birthers" rose from a handful of people prone to seeing conspiracies, aided by the Internet, magnified without evidence by eager radio and cable TV hosts, and eventually ratified by a small group of Republican politicians working to keep the story alive on the floors of Congress and the campaign trails of the Midwest.

It's a powerful story about what experts call political paranoia over a new face in a time of anxiety and rapid change the sort of viral message that can take hold among a sliver of the populace that's ready to believe that their new president is a fraud, and just as ready to angrily dismiss anyone who disagrees with them as part of the conspiracy.

"He is NOT an American citizen," yelled a woman at a town hall meeting in Delaware, angrily confronting a congressman. "I don't want this flag to change. I want my country back."

When Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., responded that Obama is a citizen, she and others in the room jeered him.

"It's a fascinating phenomenon," said Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs and author of the recent book "Political Paranoia."

THE TALE

"They are not searching for the truth. They are searching for anything that confirms their fixed idea, their malevolent idea. It doesn't soothe people to tell them it's not legitimate. That makes them angry."

Birthers charge that Obama hasn't proved that he was born a U.S. citizen, and therefore isn't eligible to be president under the constitutional requirement that the president be 35 years old, a resident of the country for at least 14 years and a natural-born citizen.

They also say that a birth certificate posted on the Internet by Obama during his campaign isn't the original, and it's a forgery anyway.

THE FACTS

First, the 2007 document isn't a forgery. Independent experts from such groups as FactCheck.org at the University of Pennsylvania have examined it and said it's real.

Second, it's true that the 2007 document issued by the state of Hawaii, called a Certification of Live Birth, isn't a copy of the original 1961 document. Obama could ask for that from Hawaii but hasn't, without explanation. The longer, original form would show more details, including the name of the doctor, according to copies of other 1961 birth certificates.

White House aides say only that Obama has produced his birth certificate. That's true. It is a birth certificate, issued by the state Health Department and acceptable to prove citizenship to the federal government for purposes of obtaining a passport.

It's also true that it isn't the original birth certificate.

Regardless, Hawaii state officials said again last week that they've examined the original and affirmed that it shows that Obama was born there.

Also, the two Honolulu newspapers report that they carried brief announcements of the birth of a boy to the Obamas in 1961. Said the Aug. 13 birth announcement in the Honolulu Advertiser: "Mr. and Mrs. Barack H. Obama, 6085 Kalanianaole Hwy, son, Aug. 4."

The Hawaii Health Department says it supplied the lists of births for those announcements. Announcements supplied by families were longer and more personal and normally included the child's name.

SPREADING THE STORY

The Internet helped spread the story, through Web sites such as WorldNetDaily and dozens of other conservative sites, often repeating charges without evidence or attribution beyond other like-minded Web sites.

"This is abetted by changes in the structure of communications," said Michael Barkun, an expert in conspiracy theories and a political science professor at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. "What once would have been fringe ideas are spread very quickly and much more widely than would have been the case even 10 years ago. ... Ideas that originate in quite small subcultures can very quickly get mainstreamed."

Once the story spread on the Internet, several of the birthers found a stage on talk radio and cable TV. Lou Dobbs of CNN, for example, has said he thinks the allegation is false, yet he continues to have the birthers on.

Ultimately, the story has taken hold with some Republicans. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would require a presidential candidate to produce a birth certificate "together with such other documentation as may be necessary" to prove natural-born citizenship. It would take effect in 2012, in time to force Obama to produce more documentation.

Posey has nine co-sponsors so far, all Republicans.

In the Senate, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told the Tulsa World he didn't think it was a priority, but that he understood the birthers' quest. "I don't discourage them from going ahead and pursuing that," he said. There are signs that Republicans see political risk in encouraging the birthers.

However Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has now distanced himself from them on Thursday. And Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, his party's leader in the House, said he has other priorities, and that he has no reason to believe the allegation.

http://www.twincities.com/ci_12971203

By Steven Thomma
McClatchy Newspapers