President Obama releases long form birth certificate, hoping to put an end to ‘birther’ rumours

Since the presidential primary season in 2008, rumours have been swimming around the internet that President Obama’s real birthplace was Kenya and not Hawaii, that he is a Muslim, and all manner of other wonderful conspiracy theories that have since been picked up by the nuttiest of America’s citizens. Many state legislatures have even passed laws and resolutions expressing doubt about the president’s citizenship. Most recently, Donald Trump, real estate mogul and potential 2012 contender, has been seriously questioning the ‘real’ birthplace of the Commander-in-Chief.

Despite the fact that Barack Obama released his certificate of live birth in June 2008, that both the former (republican) and current (democratic) governors of Hawaii have confirmed that they have seen the birth certificate, and that there has been no proof of the president being born outside the United States, this myth refused to die, with a recent poll suggesting that 45% of republicans think he was born overseas. That’s why I hope that today’s release of President Obama’s full, long-form birth certificate (the original copy) will satisfy doubters. TPM has more:

Hoping to end a long-running “controversy” over whether he was born in the United States, the White House released President Barack Obama’s long-form birth certificate on Wednesday. “The President believed the distraction over his birth certificate wasn’t good for the country. It may have been good politics and good TV, but it was bad for the American people and distracting from the many challenges we face as a country,” the White House’s Dan Pfeiffer wrote in a blog post. “Therefore, the President directed his counsel to review the legal authority for seeking access to the long form certificate and to request on that basis that the Hawaii State Department of Health make an exception to release a copy of his long form birth certificate,” wrote Pfeiffer. “They granted that exception in part because of the tremendous volume of requests they had been getting.”

You can see it here. I’m sure, however, that the most paranoid of the paranoid will still not be satisfied – assuming whatever bizarre news sources they follow cover the news. There are some people that are just too insane to believe the truth.


Newt Gingrich is running for president

It seems that, after the announcement from former pizza exec Herman Cain that he’s setting up a presidential exporatory committee, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is doing the same:

The 2012 Republican race for president has a second candidate! According to “confidants close to the former House speaker”… Newt Gingrich will announce his decision to form a presidential exploratory committee by the end of this week…

Newt Gingrich was once the most important republican in politics, as leader of his party in the House of Representatives. But he’s been out of elective politics for over ten years. And while he’s undoubtedly an intelligent and brilliant man who’s managed to stay in the public eye despite more than a decade out of office, he’s also been married three times (never a good way to connect with those religious conservatives), and divorced his ex-wife while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer. That’s John Edwards-style behaviour that would be unacceptable from a democrat.

However, his history of bigoted, populist comments may prove more damaging in an election against President Obama, even if they serve him well in a republican primary. Media Matters has a good selection of some of his worst recent utterings:

A June 16, 1995,Washington Post article reported that Gingrich, in a discussion with black journalists, stated that the failure of poor black people to acquire wealth was in part due to their “habits.”

A January 19, 1995, New York Times article reported on concerns about women in military combat roles that Gingrich had raised while teaching a history course at Georgia’s Reinhardt College… The Times reported that Gingrich told his students that “females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections…”

On the November 14, 2008, edition of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, Gingrich stated… “I think there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us, is prepared to use violence, to use harassment.”

And so on and so forth. I’m not convinced that American journalists are hard-working and courageous enough to actually call Gingrich on his public nastiness. But I do think that, while many Southern and rural white voters won’t see a problem with many of the things that Gingrich has said, minority voters and educated whites will be disgusted enough by the man’s comments to turn out in bigger numbers than usual to ensure that he doesn’t get elected to the White House. Even Sarah Palin hasn’t said anything remotely as bigoted, even if she’s spouted some crazy nonsense at times. Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney are practically democrats in comparison.

This is all, of course, assuming that a thrice-divorced overweight man who’s been out of politics for more than ten years can win the republican nomination.

Shock news: Condoleezza Rice was bad at her job and Donald Rumsfeld was a jerk

Esquire has a wonderful series of memos by Donald Rumsfeld to, and about, Condoleezza Rice, who was National Security Advisor before she became Secretary of State (for Europeans, Secretary of State = foreign minister). Some of the best excerpts:

December 13, 200l
TO: Honorable Condoleezza Rice
FROM: Donald Rumsfeld

We just had the Principals Committee meeting on Iran and Russia. At the last minute, we were told not to bring the “plus one.” I arrive, and I see you have Steve Hadley, Bob Joseph, Robin Cleveland, and Al Gonzales there-and I am like a one-armed paperhanger. I am going to start bringing “plus one” to my meetings at the White House, unless there is just an enormously good reason not to. I sure cannot imagine what it would have been on that meeting, particularly since there were so many people in the room anyway…

May 20, 2002
TO: Honorable Condoleezza Rice
FROM: Donald Rumsfeld
SUBJECT: Moscow Proposals

I just saw this article from the London Times saying, “President Bush will propose . . . that Russia and the United States join forces to develop the controversial Star Wars missile defense system . . .” What is that about? Second, I have asked repeatedly for a copy of these other documents that are supposedly going to be dealt with by President Putin and President Bush in Moscow. I still haven’t seen a copy of anything other than the treaty. I need to see them. Please get them over to me. Thank you.

And so on. Basically, this confirms what everyone has always believed – that, while Rumsfeld was a jerk, he was at least somewhat serious about his job (he was, after all, White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense under Nixon and Ford, and served in various other government positions). Now, that doesn’t mean he was good at what he did, or knew what he was talking about (as this memo from 2003 to then-Under Secretary of Defense Doug Feith shows). He was basically just an arrogant jerk-off, to be honest. But at least he was more qualified to do his job than Condi, who was a sovietologist who failed to predict the fall of the USSR and a former board member of Chevron.

Look, I don’t claim for a second that Barack Obama’s foreign and defence policy is perfect. Far from it – the Obama administration has done little on the Middle East peace process, has been extraordinarily unreactive in the face of the massive recent protests in North Africa, and has done almost nothing to engage vital allies like India. At the same time, however, at least President Obama has actually picked qualified people to run foreign and defence policy, instead of turning to oil industry execs like Bush did.

My point is that, as much as I would have loved to have seen the president do more on many foreign policy issues about which I care deeply, at least we no longer live in the Bush era where laziness, arrogance and blind dogma guided America’s foreign relations. For all of his flaws, President Obama has allowed the USA to rebuild its image abroad and ‘reset’ vital relationships with foreign partners. For that alone, we should be thankful that he, and not cranky old man John McCain, is the current occupant of the White House. Can you imagine Joe Lieberman and Rudy Giuliani in charge of American foreign policy, with Sarah Palin as VP?

Only 52% of Americans know the health care bill is law

It’s things like this that make you wonder what kind of a world half of Americans live in:

In a new Kaiser Health poll, just 52% of Americans knew that the health care reform bill signed into law by President Obama is still in place. Meanwhile, one fifth — 22% — of all Americans believe that the law has been overturned, while another 26% aren’t sure what’s up with the law.

At least those 22% of people who think healthcare reform is now off the books seem to be aware enough of events to have kind of figured out that republicans were against the legislation, and that maybe something happened in November that gave more power to the people who opposed ‘Obamacare’. As for the 26% who don’t know…

Look, the thing about any kind of poll like this one is that what it really shows is just how little attention the average American pays to news, and specifically news about politics. Fox News is the most popular news channel in the country, followed by MSNBC and CNN. Yet even ‘popular’ shows like The O’Reilly Factor, Hannity or Glenn Beck get surprisingly few viewers (781 thousand, 585 thousand and 572 thousand respectively, according to Nielsen). Compare those statistics to, say, the almost 30 million people who watch American Idol on a regular basis. Now, granted, more people watch network and local cable news. But their coverage of politics beyond the odd election or truly ground-breaking piece of legislation is minimal. As a result, most people in America have little to no idea what’s going on in their own country. It’s not because they’re stupid – it’s just that they’d rather watch something else than political coverage.

Baby steps towards marriage equality in the United States

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know that I’m a huge supporter of marriage rights for LGBT couples. It’s a question of basic equality and justice. That’s why I’m so happy about this particular piece of news:

In a major policy reversal, the Obama administration said Wednesday it will no longer defend the constitutionality of a federal law banning recognition of same-sex marriage.

Attorney General Eric Holder said President Barack Obama has concluded that the administration cannot defend the federal law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. He noted that the congressional debate during passage of the Defense of Marriage Act “contains numerous expressions reflecting moral disapproval of gays and lesbians and their intimate and family relationships – precisely the kind of stereotype-based thinking and animus the (Constitution’s) Equal Protection Clause is designed to guard against.”

The Justice Department had defended the act in court until now.

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was signed into law by Bill Clinton – and it, alongside Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), was one of the worst decisions of Clinton’s presidency. Agreeing to republican legislation banning gay marriage nationwide was based purely on the crass political calculation that more voters were homophobes than LGBT activists.

It’s clear that that’s changing. Back in the 1990s, no-one even bothered to poll opinions on same-sex unions. In 2010, for the first time, a CNN poll found that 52% of adult Americans “think gays and lesbians should have a constitutional right to get married and have their marriage recognized by law as valid.” While I remain doubtful that a majority of Americans would vote for marriage equality, attitudes do seem to have changed substantially. Homophobia is becoming less and less ‘okay’. As more and more people dare to come out of the closet, people across the country are coming to the realisation that – surprise, surprise – gay people are just people, like anyone else. That’s brilliant news.

So while today’s decision isn’t anywhere near gay marriage, and should have come two years ago, it’s certainly a positive step, and one that reflects the astonishing progress that the gay rights cause has made in American public opinion over the past couple of decades. It’s why I’m happy to have a democrat in the White House, even if I’d like to see marriage equality right away, and I don’t think President Obama has gone far enough. Just imagine where we’d be if John McCain had won in November 2008. We’d still have DADT, we’d be nowhere close to DOMA repeal, and President McCain might well have announced his support for a federal gay marriage ban.

That’s why elections matter.

More than half of all republican primary voters are either insane or stupid

Now, I try to be fair with my republican friends and compatriots. I really, really do. But sometimes it’s hard. This is a prime example:

The theory that President Obama is not a natural born U.S. citizen (and thus ineligible to be President) has hardly been squelched. According to a new PPP poll, it’s actually a predominant belief within the Republican party.

In the poll, 51% of all likely Republican primary voters erroneously believed that President Obama was born outside of the U.S. Only 28% of those Republican voters said they thought Obama was born in America, while 21% said they were unsure.

I know that intelligent, thinking republicans – essentially, the republican establishment, as opposed to the republican base – would be as horrified to hear this news as I am (not that I’m all that surprised). What’s clear, however, is that such republicans are a clear minority in their party. While I hate to make generalisations about such a huge group of people, especially if they’re my fellow citizens, conservatives sometimes make it very, very hard.

The problem, as I see it, is that republican decision-makers and opinion-makers didn’t make any effort to push back on this insane rumour when it was still possible to do so. Three years ago, when the democratic presidential primary season was in full swing and Barack Obama was still in a neck-and-neck race with Hillary Clinton for the nomination, these whispers about Obama’s birthplace, citizenship and religion were all but non-existent – a few trouble-makers online trying to sow some seeds of discord in what looked even then to be an impending democratic victory in 2008. If the rumours had been quashed then – if John McCain and other republican luminaries had clearly come out and said that they had no doubt whatsoever about Obama’s citizenship and origins – then perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today. Instead, some quietly encouraged their party’s base to believe in the rumours, while others merely said nothing.

Now, it’s too late. Even if Glenn Beck himself came out and made an impassioned speech stating that the rumours were ridiculous, it wouldn’t be enough. The republican base wouldn’t believe him. They’d call him a sell-out, a turncoat, or merely stop watching his show. Such malicious whisperings are almost impossible to quash once they’ve been around for long enough.

It’s at least somewhat encouraging to hear, for instance, John Boehner (House Speaker) proclaim that “the state of Hawaii has said that he was born there. That’s good enough for me. The president says he’s a Christian. I accept him at his word.” However, even republican politicians are scared enough of their base to add (quoting Boehner again): “It’s not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people.”

No, it’s not your job to tell people what to think. Nevertheless, it is your job (you, Speaker Boehner, and your colleagues in the House, the Senate and elected positions nationwide) to actually point out when lies are being peddled or untruths become commonly believed. President Obama was born in America. He is a natural-born citizen. And no, he’s not a Muslim, not that that should matter, because Article VI of the Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”.

Once again, even if Boehner actually had the courage to buy a half hour of ad time to explain over and over again that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference. Nevertheless, his party is guilty of doing little to quash obvious untruths that harm our democracy and the legitimacy of our institutions. While there are nuts on both sides of the aisle, of course, at least the democratic leadership has constantly made an effort to stand up and rebut – nay, ridicule – conspiracy theories like those of the 9/11 truth movement early and effectively. As a result, while I would never for a second claim that democrats are universally intelligent, reasonable or right, they at least tend not to believe completely crazy nonsense like the birth certificate rumours.

The impossibility of high-speed rail in the US

For most Europeans, high-speed rail’s benefits are obvious. It’s greener in terms of emissions. It’s less annoying – no checking in and bag scans, apart from the Eurostar (and the security checks pale in comparison to those now carried out at airports), plus no waiting around for two hours at some airport that takes an hour and costs twenty euros to get to. Plus, on short-to-medium-distance trips (say, Paris-Marseille or Brussels-Frankfurt), it’s actually much quicker, when one factors in travel to and from the airport and time spent there. Oh, and trains are nice, and you can get up and walk around in them, whereas flying is unpleasant unless you happen to have the money to fly business or first class (which I don’t).

Western Europe happens to have several first-class high speed rail networks – networks that are gradually converging thanks to projects like LGV Est (linking Paris to Germany) or HSL Zuid (which reduced the travel time from Brussels to Amsterdam to under two hours). Central and Eastern Europe is not so lucky, though Russia’s Sapsan train now links Moscow and Saint Petersburg. And Britain is essentially high speed-free, apart from the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. But even most Brits have taken (or at least seen) the Eurostar, or a high-speed train in Europe, at one point in their lives. When they did, they probably thought it was pretty cool.

Contrast this with America, where only one ‘high-speed’ rail service exists – the Acela Express, which reaches up to 240km/h (150mph) at brief points, though the average speed on the Washington-Boston route is 109km/h (68mph). While that’s pretty fast for the USA, it’s peanuts compared to France’s V150 TGV train, operating on the Paris-Strasbourg route, which reached 574.8km/h (357.2 mph) in 2007, and normally operates at around 320km/h (200mph) when travelling at full speed.

That’s why the noises that the Obama administration has been making over the past couple of years have been so heartening. And yesterday, Vice-President Biden, a long-time supporter of Amtrak and passenger rail in the United States, re-affirmed his government’s commitment to the cause:

Vice President Joe Biden used Philadelphia‘s 30th Street Station, where the nation’s only rail line approaching high speed passes through, as the backdrop to announce that the White House will be asking Congress to invest $53 billion over six years in faster passenger rail.

The funding, like the $8 billion set aside in the 2008 economic stimulus for the same purpose, would support building new high-speed rail corridors and upping speeds on existing lines. Biden said it’s about “seizing the future.”

For President Barack Obama, creating a European-style rail system in the United States, with trains whisking passengers between cities at up to 240 mph, has shaped his transportation vision from Day 1. His administration has identified 11 corridors, including the Keystone Corridor that runs from Philadelphia through Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, as potential routes for high-speed rail.

In his State of the Union address at the end of January, Obama announced a goal of providing high-speed rail access to 80 percent of Americans in 25 years.

Yet, of course, this is socialist (or something):

House Transportation Committee Chair Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida said previous administration grants to high-speed rail projects were a failure, producing “snail speed trains to nowhere.” He called Amtrak a “Soviet-style train system” and said it “hijacked” nearly all the administration’s rail projects.

Sigh. Of course, Mica’s not entirely wrong – Amtrak is a bloated system that is a result of a parochial legislative process in the United States, which consists of every single senator and congressman trying to squeeze money out of the federal budget through costly, useless projects… or unnecessary stops that prevent high-speed trains from accelerating to, um, high speeds. Why else would a line linking Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston have 16 stops?

We all know that that’s not why he’s against funding for high-speed rail, though. It’s simpler than that – there’s just no political upside for republicans to support any kind of infrastructure investment or development except roads and bridges. People have no experience of HSR, except the few who have travelled to Europe, Japan or one of the other places in the world to have fast trains. But they do drive cars, and they’re not happy when they’re stuck in traffic because the highways aren’t wide enough, or someone had an accident because of a pothole.

Add to this the fact that Americans have been moving out of cities for decades – and that, for suburbanites, it’s perhaps even more annoying and time-consuming to drive into downtown New York or Los Angeles than it is to get to the airport. Add to this, also, that urban areas are severely under-represented in the Senate, meaning that North Dakota or Wyoming’s senators must be rewarded with some kind of pointless investment in exchange for partial funding to build one high-speed line that’ll take 25 years to bring into operation because of ridiculously complicated zoning and land use issues anyway. While we’re at it, let’s also mention that the herding-cats mentality of drumming up support for anything in the upper house of America’s federal legislature means that there’ll never be the political will to invest the amounts that America truly needs to spend to build a decent high-speed rail system.

Finally, let’s not forget that America’s politics makes long-term planning for anything impossible. A president is elected for four years. The first year, he’s just figuring out how to do the job, and trying to get his cabinet and sub-cabinet nominees through the Senate. The second year, he’s worried about mid-term elections, so he’s not going to do anything major that could cost his party seats in either house. The third and fourth year, everyone’s thinking about the presidential election. If he’s lucky enough to win re-election, he maybe has a year to actually do something before the mid-terms roll around again, and then he’s a lame duck for the last two years of his presidency, because everyone is focused on who will take his place.

As a result, Washington is stuck in a permanent campaign mode that means that any kind of long-term project is never truly taken seriously. And that’s why no-one will ever get serious on the deficit, on infrastructure investment, on turning America’s schools around, or on any of the other long-term challenges that America faces. There’s just no point, because the next election is always just a year or two away.