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DECKER: ‘No drama Obama’ vs. the birthers

State secrecy breeds conspiracy theories

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2011

Politics is a blood sport, and it's naive to think there won't be some serious injuries when playing in the political big leagues. Because the stakes are so high, people running for office put forth enormous efforts to scrub their past and curricula vitae of any information that could give the faintest whiff of scandal or irregularity. This leads to many self-inflicted wounds. Excessive fear of scrutiny breeds secrecy, which can inspire conspiracy theories, as the current occupant of the White House has proven.

All of the question marks lurking around President Obama's background could be answered with a little transparency. Fair or not, refusing to make college transcripts public makes a gossipy society curious about what someone has to hide. When a public servant doesn't provide clarity, the creative masses will fill in the blanks. As liberal MSNBC host Chris Matthews frustratingly asked about the hullabaloo over Mr. Obama's birth certificate, "Why doesn't the president just say, 'Send me a copy right now?' Why doesn't [White House spokesman Robert L.] Gibbs and [presidential Senior Adviser David M.] Axelrod say, 'Let's just get this crappy story dead?' Why not do it? If it exists, why not put it out?"

Democrats try to wave off the birther controversy as a right-wing tempest in a teapot, but the president, his own staff and backers are the rainmakers who have stirred the recent storm. Even when conservative critics of this administration try to ignore the numerous conspiracy theories flying around Mr. Obama, Democrats like Mr. Matthews keep bringing the issues to the fore and thus make the scandals more bipartisan and mainstream. Hawaii Democrat Neil Abercrombie - a left-winger who made his political debut in 1970 as a longhaired Vietnam war protester - is another example. After being elected governor in November, Mr. Abercrombie, an Obama supporter, vowed to put the birther issue to rest "as quick as we can" because it could have implications for the 2012 presidential race. Now he's backtracking and giving conflicting statements about what exists and what doesn't. With friends like these, the president hardly needs enemies.

The whole saga is tawdry. Like the constant drip of lurid revelations about Bill Clinton's adulterous affairs, it'd be nice if the smarminess all went away. There are enough substantive policy issues to fight this president over besides worrying about whether little Barry was born in Honolulu or Hartford or Havana. (Free scoop to the blogosphere: Check the Cuban archives.) The fact of the matter is this president gets treated with extra-sensitive kid gloves for fear of trampling on pseudo-sacred politically correct ground. For instance, many newspapers like this one typically use middle initials with names of public officials but don't for Barack Obama. Even though the White House's own website makes use of the presidential "H," which is short for Hussein, I don't on these pages to avoid distracting charges of Islamophobia or racism or just being mean to the historic first mixed-race president of the United States. Political correctness engenders self-censorship, even here.

A lot of Mr. Obama's problems can be chalked up to bad public-relations practices and incompetent crisis management. From major mistakes such as America throwing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak under the bus to more run-of-the mill stories like the first family's constant expensive vacations on the taxpayers' dime, this president is being poorly served by his handlers. Check out the contradictory statements about Cairo from the White House and the State Department and it's hard to come to any conclusion other than that it's amateur hour in this administration. Drama engulfs everything these people do. At the end of the day, it's a head-scratcher: Why does everything about this guy have to be so weird? Why can't Barack be a little more normal?

The holdup is that this particular politician is not a transparent person. As a candidate and as president, Mr. Obama has been so stage-managed that it's not easy to know who the heck the guy really is, and his own aides get tangled up trying to decide what's true and what's spin. "Deconstructing Obama," a new book by Jack Cashill, pulls back the velvet curtain to give a glimpse backstage. His purpose is to provide an expose on a politician who has gone to great lengths to carefully manufacture a narrative for his whole life that is appealing for public consumption. There's often a difference between what's true and what sells, and Mr. Obama is a salesman. The product he's peddling is himself, so there's a need to know some of the other side of the story. "If the role of the postmodern writer is to construct a reality, the role of the postmodern critic is thus to 'deconstruct' it," the author explains.

The image of Mr. Obama is such an artificial construct that it's necessary to deconstruct some of the artifice. That work is not character assassination; it's how the game is played in the rough and tumble of Washington.

Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times.

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