A Tale of Two Countries: A Brief History of Barack Obama’s Conflicting Birth Narratives
Original research | 12/31/2016 | Fedora
Posted on 12/30/2016 10:32:28 PM PST by Fedora
As the Obama chapter of American history draws to a close, it would be fitting to write a reflection on Obama’s story, but the problem is, where does it start? Since Obama first became a public figure, two competing versions of his birth have circulated: one claiming he was born in Kenya and one claiming Hawaii. The purpose of this article is to assemble some of the primary sources documenting the history of these competing narratives, as a step towards determining why there are two stories and which–if either–is true.
Obama’s 1990 Birthplace Joke: “I was born in Oslo, Norway”
Obama’s earliest known published writing, a March 1983 piece for Columbia University’s Sundial promoting a pair of antiwar groups associated with the Soviet-backed Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, does not include any biographical background about the author.(1) The first known published biographical sketches of Obama come from 1990, after he was selected to be the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.
By this time, Obama’s birthplace was already a topic of discussion. In a 1990 Revue parody of the Review, Obama joked about his birthplace, saying, “I was born in Oslo, Norway, the son of a Volvo factory worker and part-time ice fisherman. My mother was a backup singer for Abba. They were good folks. [In Chicago,] I discovered I was black, and I have remained so ever since.”(2)
Was this joke simply intended to entertain, or was it a use of humor for a serious purpose? As Washington Post writer Hunter Schwarz has observed, Obama has joked about the controversy surrounding his birthplace and background at every annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner since 2010,(3) most famously when he quipped, “I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be.”(4) Obama’s 1990 Revue parody shows that he had been telling a running joke about his birthplace for at least 20 years before that. It’s a joke he seems to take seriously.
1990-1991: The Hawaii Birthplace Story Begins
Meanwhile, serious biographies of Obama began to appear in major newspapers. A February 15, 1990 Boston Globe piece on Obama’s Harvard Law Review appointment began a summary of his biography by referring to his “childhood in Indonesia” and “adolescence in Hawaii”.(5) It went on to describe his father as being from Kenya and his mother as being from Kansas. It then continues, “His parents met and married in Hawaii and divorced when Obama was 2.” The interview did not specify where Obama was born.
The New York Times ran the first known article containing the Hawaii version of Obama’s birthplace narrative on February 26, 1990.(6) The article was based on an interview with Obama, and it stated, “His late father, Barack Obama, was a finance minister in Kenya and his mother, Ann Dunham, is an American anthropologist now doing fieldwork in Indonesia. Mr. Obama was born in Hawaii.”
When Obama graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991, a nationally-syndicated AP story that ran in April included the Hawaii version of his birth narrative.(7) The article said, “He was born in Hawaii, his father an Oxford- and Harvard-educated economist from the African nation of Kenya, his mother a white anthropologist from Kansas.”
1991: The Kenya Birthplace Story Surfaces
In 1991, the Kenya version of Obama’s birth narrative made its first known appearance. Obama’s February 1990 New York Times coverage had attracted the attention of literary agent Jane Dystel, whose agency Acton & Dystel had previously handled the work of black civil rights author James Baldwin.(8) Seeing Obama as another potential Baldwin, Dystel suggested that he write a book proposal. On November 28, 1990, Simon & Schuster imprint Poseidon Press offered Obama a six-figure contract for a book to be called Journeys in Black and White. In 1991, Obama took a position at the University of Chicago Law School in order to write the book.
In Chicago, Obama developed writer’s block and became preoccupied with his social life with Michelle, and he missed his book’s publishing deadline. On October 20, 1992, Poseidon Press terminated its contract with Obama, leaving him owing them money for his cash advance.
While Obama was working on Journeys in Black and White, the Kenya version of his birth narrative made its first known appearance in publicity material circulated in 1991 by Dystel’s literary agency, Acton & Dystel.(9) To celebrate the 15th anniversary of its 1976 founding, Acton & Dystel produced a 36-page booklet showcasing 90 of its clients. Obama’s entry appeared between New Kids on the Block and Mark Olshaker. It stated, “Barack Obama, the first African-American president of Harvard Law Review, was born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia and Hawaii.” The piece concluded by mentioning the anticipated publication of Journeys in Black and White.
The booklet was edited by Miriam Goderich, who later went on to become Dystel’s partner at a new agency, Dystel & Goderich. In 2012, Goderich emailed Yahoo News a statement attributing the Kenya birthplace detail to a fact-checking error on her part: “This was nothing more than a fact checking error by me–an agency assistant at the time. . .There was never any information given to us by Obama in any of his correspondence or other communications suggesting in any way that he was born in Kenya and not Hawaii. I hope you can communicate to your readers that this was a simple mistake and nothing more.”(10) Of course, this raises the question of how a publishing professional could make such a fact-checking error. What led Goderich to think Obama was born in Kenya?
If Goderich made an error, neither she nor Obama were quick to notice or correct it. After Obama became a U.S. Senator in 2004, Dystel & Goderich’s website listed him as a client with a biography that included the statement, “He was born in Kenya to an American anthropologist and a Kenyan finance minister and was raised in Indonesia, Hawaii, and Chicago.”(11) Then-Breitbart editor-at-large Ben Shapiro documented that Dystel & Goderich continued to use this wording on its website until April 2007, two months after Obama announced his Presidential candidacy.(12) Sometime between April 3 and April 21 of 2007, Dystel & Goderich updated its website biography of Obama to read, “He was born in Hawaii to an American anthropologist and a Kenyan finance minister and was raised in Indonesia, Hawaii, and Chicago.”
Two Competing Narratives
After his contract on Journeys in Black and White got cancelled, Dystel managed to get Obama a new contract with Times Books.(13) Obama began a new book, which Times Books published in 1995 as Dreams from My Father.(14) Dreams from My Father advanced the Hawaii version of Obama’s birth narrative, which has since then become part of Obama’s official biography.
But meanwhile, the Kenyan version of Obama’s birth narrative continued to remain in circulation on Dystel & Goderich’s website and elsewhere. During Obama’s 2004 U.S. Senate campaign against Republican candidate Jack Ryan, the Kenyan newspaper Sunday Standard ran an AP story on June 27 under the headline, “Kenyan-born Obama all set for US Senate”.(15) Fact-checking website Snopes.com asserts that the Standard added the language identifying Obama as “Kenyan-born” to the original AP story,(16) which appeared elsewhere under headlines such as “Illinois’ Jack Ryan Abandons Senate Bid” and “Jack Ryan abandons Senate bid”, with significantly different wording in the body of the article.(17) Of course, this raises the question of why the Standard would have added this language and why its editors believed Obama was Kenyan-born.
The editors of the Standard were not the only ones in 2004 who were under the impression that Obama was Kenyan-born. On August 3, 2004, the Kerrville Times published a letter to the editor from reader Jerry Fife asking, “Why are some people saying Barack Obama from Illinois could be the first black president of the USA when he was born in Kenya? I cannot see where he fills the requirements. And no one calls these commentors [sic] on their spin. Namely Chris Matthews of MSNBC.”(18) Fife went on to quote the U.S. Constitution, which limited the Presidency to natural-born citizens and those who were U.S. citizens at the time the Constitution was adopted.
Public references to Obama being Kenyan-born continued into the 2008 Presidential campaign, even after Dystel & Goderich updated its website to reflect Obama’s Hawaii birth narrative in April 2007. On March 27, 2007, Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn was already proposing a strategy of targeting Obama’s “lack of American roots”.(19) By the end of February 2008, rumors that Obama had been born overseas had gained enough currency to generate discussion on Free Republic, though without specific reference to Kenya.(20) On March 5, 2008, the blog Ruthless Roundup discussed an allegation that Obama’s mother “allegedly had Obama in Kenya and quickly boarded a flight to Hawaii”.(21) Hillary Clinton’s campaign distributed this rumor in April, circulating an anonymous email that claimed, “Barack Obama’s mother was living in Kenya with his Arab-African father late in her pregnancy. She was not allowed to travel by plane then, so Barack Obama was born there and his mother then took him to Hawaii to register his birth.”(22)
By June 2008, the controversy over Obama’s birthplace had spread widely enough that the Obama campaign released a scan of a short-form birth certificate, obtained in 2007.(23) This led critics to demand the release of Obama’s original, long-form birth certificate. In 2011, following public pressure generated by Donald Trump, the White House website would post a scan of a long-form birth certificate obtained from the Hawaii Department of Health.(24) In December 2015, following Trump’s election as President, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department would officially announce the opinion of forensics experts that the certificate posted on the White House’s website was a forgery.(25)
Meanwhile, rumors about Obama’s Kenyan birth continued to circulate throughout the political spectrum during and the 2008 campaign and after. On October 9, 2008, Africa-based NPR correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton appeared in a segment that NPR’s website summarized as including discussion of “the U.S. presidential race of Kenyan-born Sen. Barack Obama”.(26)
The rumors took on legal significance in August 2008, when attorney Philip Berg, a Democrat, filed a lawsuit arguing that Obama was ineligible to run for President due to being born in Kenya and having one parent who was not an American citizen.(27) During the suit, which was eventually dismissed, testimony was introduced that included a recording of Obama’s step-grandmother Sarah seeming to acknowledge through a translator that Obama was born in Kenya.(28) When asked if she was present when Obama was born in Kenya, Sarah initially answered yes. Later in the conversation, the translator insisted that she meant Obama was born in Hawaii. However, members of Obama’s tribe who are fluent in his family’s dialect and have listened to the recording have asserted that Sarah indeed said Obama was born in Mombasa, Kenya and that the Hawaii claim came from the translator.(29) This seemingly contradicted a story that Sarah first learned of her son’s marriage via letter from Hawaii.(30) Further complicating matters, in a 2012 interview with Sarah where an audio recording has not been released, a translator claimed she said Obama wasn’t born in Kenya.(31)
Sarah is not the only member of the Obama family who has been recorded making embarrassing statements. Michelle Obama, speaking about HIV at an LGBT Delegate Luncheon on January 2, 2009, recalled, “When we took our trip to Africa and visited his home country in Kenya, we took a public HIV test.”(32)
Why Are There Two Stories?
Such is the documentary record. It indicates that both the Hawaiian and the Kenyan versions of Obama’s birth narrative have been circulating publicly ever since Obama first drew public attention following his 1990 Harvard Law Review appointment. It also suggests that both versions of the story originate, not from Birther critics, and not from Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, but from Obama’s own publicity efforts. The first reference to the Hawaii version of Obama’s birth narrative dates to Obama’s February 1990 interview with The New York Times. The first reference to the Kenya version dates to his literary agent’s 1991 biographical sketch.
His literary agent’s claim that the Kenya story originated with a fact-checking error is inadequate. Even if it were true, it would simply raise the question of how the agent got the facts wrong. But it seems difficult to conceive how a literary agent could get such a basic fact wrong without input from their client. Even if a ghostwriter was used, they would have been provided with biographical material supplied by Obama and by published articles about Obama.
The “fact-checking error” explanation becomes more suspect in light of Obama’s failure to notice his literary agent’s alleged error for 16 years, his 25-year running joke about his birthplace, and his forged birth certificate. At best, the cumulative facts suggest that Obama has promoted inconsistent stories of his own birth since the beginning of his public career, for whatever reason. At worst, it raises the ominous possibility that a usurper has been occupying the White House for the last eight years. The only upside of this is that if Obama is indeed ineligible to hold the office of the Presidency, all his executive actions are legally null and void. This alone is sufficient reason for the public to continue demanding the truth.
1. Barack Obama, “Breaking the War Mentality”, The Sundial, Volume 7, Number 12, March 10, 1983, 2-3, 5, http://documents.nytimes.com/obama-s-1983-college-magazine-article.
2. Revue, Cambridge, 1990, cited in Jodi Kantor, “In Law School, Obama Found Political Voice”, The New York Times, January 28, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/us/politics/28obama.html?pagewanted=all.
3. Hunter Schwarz, “Did you hear the one about the Muslim, socialist, Kenyan president? The joke Obama can’t stop telling.”, The Washington Post, April 26, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/04/26/obama-jokes-about-being-a-socialist-kenya-born-muslim-at-every-whcd/?utm_term=.1d2509097120.
4. Obama to 2013 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, video clip online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVH4PKUUKJY.
5. Linda Matchan, “A Law Review Breakthrough”, The Boston Globe, February 15, 1990, http://archive.boston.com/news/politics/2008/articles/1990/02/15/a_law_review_breakthrough/
6. Fox Butterfield, “First Black Elected to Head Harvard’s Law Review”, The New York Times, February 6, 1990, http://www.nytimes.com/1990/02/06/us/first-black-elected-to-head-harvard-s-law-review.html.
7. Allison J. Pugh, “First black president of journal finds his calling in inner cities”, Hutchinson News, April 16, 1990, 7.
8. Robert Draper, “Barack Obama’s Work in Progress”, GQ, November 15, 2009, http://www.gq.com/story/barack-obama-writing-books-writer-robert-draper.
9. Joel B. Pollak, “The Vetting – Exclusive – Obama’s Literary Agent in 1991 Booklet: ‘Born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia and Hawaii’”, Breitbart, May 17, 2012, http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2012/05/17/the-vetting-barack-obama-literary-agent-1991-born-in-kenya-raised-indonesia-hawaii/.
10. Dylan Stableford, “‘Born in Kenya’: Obama’s literary agent misidentified his birthplace in 1991”, Yahoo News, May 17, 2012, https://www.yahoo.com/news/blogs/ticket/born-kenya-obama-literary-agent-misidentified-birthplace-1991-214423507.html.
11. “Client List”, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, https://web.archive.org/web/20130201145059/http://web.archive.org/web/20070403190001/http://www.dystel.com/clientlist.html
12. Ben Shapiro, “Obama’s Lit Agency Used ‘Born in Kenya’ Bio Until 2007”, May 17, 2012, Breitbart, https://web.archive.org/web/20120518172322/http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2012/05/17/Obama-pamphlet-in-use-2007.
13. Janny Scott, “The Story of Obama, Written by Obama,” The New York Times, May 18, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/18/us/politics/18memoirs.html?pagewanted=all
14. Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, New York: Times Books, 1995.
15. ”Kenyan-born Obama all set for US Senate”, Sunday Standard, June 27, 2004, http://web.archive.org/web/20040627142700/eastandard.net/headlines/news26060403.htm.
16. David Mikkelson, “A June 2004 Associated Press article identified Barack Obama as ‘Kenyan-born’?”, Snopes.com, October 30, 2009, http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/birthers/ap.asp.
17. “Jack Ryan abandons Senate bid”, USA Today, June 26, 2004, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/state/2004-06-25-ryan_x.htm.
18. “Letters to the Editor: Doesn’t’ Meet Requirements”, Kerrville Daily Times, August 3, 2004, 4A.
19. Memo, Mark Penn to Hillary Clinton, March 19, 2007, reprinted in Joshua Green, “Penn Strategy Memo, March 19, 2007”, The Atlantic, August 11, 2008, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2008/08/penn-strategy-memo-march-19-2008/37952/.
20. “FR CONTEST: ‘Pin the Middle Name on the Obama’”, FreeRepublic.com, February 28, 2008, http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/1978110/posts?page=391#391, Post 391.
21. “FREEDOMS ENEMIES – THE OBAMA STORY”, Ruthless Roundup, March 5, 2008, http://alanpetersroundup.blogspot.com/2008/03/freedoms-enemies-obama-story.html.
22. Jon Swaine, “Birther row began with Hillary Clinton supporters”, The Telegraph, April 27, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/barackobama/8478044/Birther-row-began-with-Hillary-Clinton-supporters.html.
23. “Fight the Smears”, The Obama File, http://www.theobamafile.com/_exhibits/FightTheSmearsCOLBHTML.htm.
25. “WOW: Sheriff Joe Arpaio Releases New Information on President Obama’s Birth Certificate”, YouTube.com, December 15, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jk3KRxTfkLM.
26. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, “Trial and Triumph: Stories Out Of Africa”, NPR, October 9, 2008, https://web.archive.org/web/20091020224623/http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95550177.
27. Berg v. Obama et al, Justia, https://dockets.justia.com/docket/pennsylvania/paedce/2:2008cv04083/281573.
28. “Obama Not Born In Kenya – McRae / Berg Full Clip of Grandmother”, YouTube.com, August 2, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CY6bPYKLjNw&feature=player_embedded.
30. Tim Jones, “Barack Obama Part 2: Barack Obama: Mother not just a girl from Kansas: Stanley Ann Dunham shaped a future senator”, Hartford Courant, March 27, 2007, https://web.archive.org/web/20090821054242/http://www.courant.com/news/nationworld/world/chi-0703270151mar27-archive,0,2145571.story.
31. Irin Carmon, “’Barack Obama wasn’t born in Kenya’: Meeting the president’s step-grandmother at the family compound in Kenya”, Salon, June 22, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/06/22/barack_obama_wasnt_born_in_kenya/.
32. “Michelle Obama speaking at the LGBT Delegate (The World as it Should Be)”, YouTube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxh1PvjP0Ug.
An effort to organize what I’ve collected on this over the last eight years into one place. If I missed anything important, let me know.
Thank you for your efforts. I find them edifying.
“Truth forever on the scaffold.”
Thank you very much. ( he’s ineligible anyway given his daddy problem)
I doubt Obama knows where he was born or who his father is.
Absolutely a work of academic excellence and highly intellectual proportions. You skillfully mastered the best way to present this information, Obama’s own words!
Well done, good and faithful Freeper!
To: Organic Panic
Our last two Dem presidents have been bastards.
Good job. FYI…in this paragraph, shouldn’t you say, “In December 2016, following Trump’s election as President…”?
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