A Few Thoughts About President Obama's Birthday, the Need for Disclosure, and Transparency

09/03/2009 03:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carol M. Swain Political Analyst, Professor of Political Science and Law at Vanderbilt University

(Tuesday, August 4, 2009) - My mother Dorothy was born on August 3rd and one of my four granddaughters on August 4th. My youngest granddaughter is thrilled that she shares a birthday with the President of the United States. Despite all the recent hoopla surrounding the President's failure to release his long-form birth certificate, and other sealed documents relating to his education, travel, and health, no one denies that on August 4, 1961, a baby was born who would grow up to become the nation's first African-American President. Given our country's painful legacy of slavery and Jim Crow racism, President Obama's election is and was a momentous achievement for the offspring of a white woman and an African immigrant. I want my five grandchildren to be able to know every detail about the President's background, including how well he performed in school, and where he has traveled during the course of his life.

Only great men (and hopefully one day, great women) can ascend to the highest office in the land. And yes, that includes President George W. Bush and others we sometimes malign. It is critical for scholars and biographers to be able to study all aspects of the lives of our presidents. Unfortunately, President Obama, who promised healing and transparency, has created unnecessary distractions by refusing to release sealed documents that would shed more light on who he is, and the forces that helped shape his identity. Although some may argue that the sealed records are none of our business, I would have to disagree. Once a person becomes the President of the United States, in my humble opinion he or she should belong to the people; therefore, the ordinary rights of privacy should no longer apply.

Consider that in other areas of public life, we take background checks and disclosure quite seriously. To serve as a political appointee usually requires an in-depth background check and open disclosure of numerous details about every aspect of a person's life. As far as I know, the President of the United States and members of Congress are not required to undergo background checks before being given access to high-level security information affecting the health and well-being of our nation. Therefore, it becomes even more critical for us to know as much as possible about candidates and elected officials, preferably before they take office. In the case of the President, it is even more important because it becomes an integral part of the narrative that we pass down to future generations.

Carol M. Swain is a Professor of Political Science and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. A frequent commentator on race relations, immigration, black leadership, and evangelical politics, Swain is also an accomplished author of several popular books, including The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration (Cambridge University Press, 2002), Black Face, Black Interests: The Representation of African American in Congress (Harvard University Press, 1993), and her most recent book Debating Immigration (Cambridge University Press, 2007).