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Linda R. Monk, J.D. Headshot

Birth of a Controversy: Why Didn't Obama Disclose Info Sooner?

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Finally, President Obama has released the long-form birth certificate he should have produced at least two years ago, if not before. His failure to do so indicates an arrogance about his accountability to the voters that saddens me.

I never doubted that the president was born in Hawaii, and I fervently supported his election in 2008. But instead of releasing a complete birth certificate, to which he clearly had access, the White House pursued the same media strategy of the Clinton years: stonewalling on controversial issues by blaming questioners, leaving the country bitter and embroiled and wasting precious energy to do the nation's business. It is the president who squandered the nation's time, not so-called "birthers."

The crux of the controversy was that the president's Hawaii birth certificate, as released by the Obama campaign in 2008, did not include information that is standard in many other states -- such as the signature of the doctor present at birth, parents' address, and signature of the vital records official at the time the original certificate was issued. (1961 in President Obama's case). Some people challenged the authenticity of the 2008 document as a result. I did not. I was married in Hawaii and have my own version of that green safety paper with computer typeface. But Obama's 2008 birth certificate did not disclose other verifying information that Hawaii supposedly had on file. Why didn't the president release the long-form birth certificate then?

Various news accounts only muddied the issue. verified the validity of the 2008 Hawaii certificate, but questions remained about the pre-existing certificate that would have been on file in 1961, ostensibly with more extensive birth information. Yet thus far no news reporter had actually seen such a document. Hawaii officials said only that they've seen the 1961 document "according to state laws and procedures," whatever that meant. On July 23, 2009, CNN producer Jon Klein announced his researchers found that Hawaii had converted its records to an electronic database in 2001 and all paper records were destroyed. Hawaii officials disputed that account. As verified today, President Obama had access to the complete document that would have ended the controversy.

Any questions about the details of the president's birth should have been answered, regardless of motive. That some so-called "birthers" would never accept President Obama's election was irrelevant. Any American voter is entitled to know the facts about the president's birth, period. Issues surrounding a president's natural-born status, required by the Constitution, go back at least until Chester Arthur and are by no means unique to President Obama and his status as the first African-American elected to the office. Senator John McCain faced such questions about his birth to American citizens in Panama and answered them.

Moreover, a standard part of any presidential autobiography is location not just city of birth -- whether it begins "I was born in the house my father built" or "I was born in Honolulu General Hospital." Why should Americans have had to wait for Mr. Obama to write his presidential memoirs to learn this information, and why weren't so-called "mainstream" reporters more eager to find out before? Such deference to Obama fueled more speculation and was a disservice to the American people.

The Clinton-era practice of stalling to release pertinent information and blaming those who asked questions corrupted the Obama press office and undermined President Obama's own philosophy of governing. As Mr. Obama so eloquently said of Abraham Lincoln in The Battle for America 2008, a book by Washington Post reporter Dan Balz and Post veteran Haynes Johnson:

Most of our other great presidents, there was that sense of working the angles and bending other people to their will. FDR being the classic example. And Lincoln just found a way to shape public opinion and shape people around him and lead them and guide them without tricking them or bullying them, but just through the force of . . . helping to illuminate the truth. I just find that to be a very compelling style of leadership. It's not one that I've mastered, but I think that's when leadership is at its best.

That's the President Obama I voted for, but I must wonder if that's what he still believes. In the health care debate, the war in Afghanistan, the reform of Wall Street, and now the birther controversy, I fear the president has too often avoided the truth rather than illuminate it. In his own words, that's not a very compelling style of leadership.