“I was born, of course, in Hawaii,” President Barack Obama began last night from the stage of the annual piece of dinner theater that is the White House Correspondents Dinner.
Then he winked, bringing down the house.
In his routine, Obama — as he has before — poked fun at rumors he was born in Kenya. He laughed gamely when comedian Jimmy Kimmel flicked at another rumor, that he’s a crypto-Muslim, with his greeting: “Salaam.” He joked that his second term’s secret agenda would involve hip-hop: “In my first term, I sang Al Green; in my second term, I’m going with Young Jeezy.” He joked about eating dog as a boy in Indonesia, an alien detail conservatives have delighted in raising in recent weeks.
Last night’s comedy routine didn’t just tap newsy mini-scandals — one at the General Services Administration, the other at the Secret Service — for which such events are designed. Obama and comic Jimmy Kimmel harped on the three most visceral and, once, potent lines of personal attack on Obama, the contradictory stew of questions raised about his religion, his race, and his American identity that have shadowed him since 2007, mostly debunked but never quite put to rest. Their presence at the White House Correspondents Dinner, a good-natured and generally toothless ritual whose players are adept at appearing to cross lines while remaining fundamentally inoffensive, shows how thoroughly they have been neutralized, and how confident are Obama and his handlers that they pose little threat.
There are three reasons that these once-threatening memes have lost their bite. One is Obama’s clear definition in the public mind. All Americans know the president. More like him personally, even, than approve of his policies. A persistent conservative belief that he retains dark secrets is challenged daily by the banal, very public life of a man with two daughters and a dog. Voters believe they know who Obama is, and less open to new version of dire hints they rejected or ignored two years ago.
The second reason is the presidency itself. It’s one thing to ask whether a newcomer to the political scene is American enough for the presidency, as Hillary Clinton’s pollster, playing on public doubts, suggested she do in 2008. The question is barely intelligible when asked of the President of the United States. Obama is the ultimate American ex officio. Like all presidents running for re-election, he is working to attach the qualities of the office — strength, dignity, patriotism — to himself, and to campaign not just as a candidate but as the president.
The third reason toxic rumors have become safe jokes is the transformation of the news cycle. Once, topics of actual import, like John F. Kennedy’s medication and questions about Ronald Reagan’s memory were, if not off limits, possible to contain. Now an innuendo that takes shape in the Internet fever swamps on Monday will be the subject of newsroom chatter and quiet questions to the press office by Wednesday, and on the front page of Friday’s New York Times. This played out most vividly in 2008 in the discussion of an apocryphal video tape in which Michelle Obama was said to have used the slur, “Whitey.” That May 16, a former CIA analyst and Bush Administration critic, Larry Johnson, claimed to “have it from four sources (three who are close to senior Republicans) that there is video dynamite — Michelle Obama railing against ‘whitey’ at Jeremiah Wright’s church.” Soon, version of the story made their way to Fox News and to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Clinton’s top aides took it seriously. Obama’s campaign posted an on-record denial. On June 18, a story referring to the rumor appeared on the front page of the Times.
The pattern has played out again and again, most visibly during Obama’s term with a set of inane conspiracy theories about his birth certificate. Again, a theme born in the fringe and repeatedly debunked made its way into the central stream of American public life, in the unlikely figure of Donald Trump, until the president himself was forced to reckon with the issue from the White House podium. Ann Romney recently weighed in on an old anecdote, that Democrats turned into running gag, about how the family transported their dog. The Republican Twitter pushback about Obama eating a dog was the subject of his Correspondents Dinner riff, a gift to the White House speechwriters who, with the assist of a moonlighting Daily Show writers and other volunteers, penned Saturday night’s address.
The lesson for the rest of this presidential campaign is that the subterranean rumors and running online gags will all be on the record, all the third rails of race and religion grabbed with both hands, by November. The presidential campaign cycle is only beginning to gather speed.