A Kenyan, a Hawaiian and a Birther Walk Into a Bar

Jokes rarely withstand scrutiny, and even more rarely merit it, but a jest tossed out by Mitt Romney last week deserves some consideration.

Speaking to a large and enthusiastic crowd in Commerce, Michigan, the Republican presidential nominee made an obligatory appeal to home state pride by reminding his supporters that he and his wife were born in nearby hospitals. He then added that “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place where we were born and raised.”

It’s not nearly a knee-slapper, even by the low standards of presidential campaign humor, but it apparently achieved its desired effect. Reporter Jan Crawford of the CBS network was in attendance and immediately issued a “tweet” that there were “two reactions to his birth certificate joke: reporters gasped — and a crowd of thousands laughed and cheered.” Getting a crowd to laugh and cheer is the primary purpose of any joke, of course, but with the added benefit of causing reporters to gasp the line must be considered a success.

Not only the reporters were scandalized by the reference to birth certificates, however, as many of the president’s other supporters also expressed shock and indignation that Romney would “go there.” Although a more objective listener might surmise that the line merely acknowledged the widely known fact that some Americans question whether Obama was born in the United States, Romney’s more excitable critics leaped to conclusion that it was intended as an endorsement of what has come to be known as the “birther” theory. Although Romney has long disputed the theory, and insisted that he is satisfied Obama was born in Hawaii, the folks at the lefty activist group MoveOn.org even rented a plane with an hilariously misspelled banner proclaiming that “America is better then birtherism.”

Such a reaction was so easily predictable that even some of Romney’s supporters have been moved to speculate why he would provoke it. The estimable Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds and Ann Althouse, both law professors and widely-read internet commentators, simultaneously seized on the same idea that Romney had intended to imply to his audience, and to the millions more who would eventually hear of the line, that Obama has taken a “post-American” approach to the presidency and that Romney is “more truly and fundamentally American.” This seems a fair argument, given how Obama’s campaign in ’08 stressed his foreign background and global citizenship, that his own literary agent had peddled the born-in-Kenya story as a way of enhancing his exotic appeal, and that his approach to the presidency has indeed been “post-American,” so perhaps Reynolds and Althouse are on to something.

On the other hand, perhaps the joke was intended to provoke its predictable reaction merely to demonstrate how very thin-skinned and humorless the president and his supporters have become. Many of the president’s admirers insist that he be immune from the usual jabs and jibes of campaigning, a rule that John McCain slavishly obeyed to no useful effect in the ’08 race, and it’s also possible that Romney intended the joke to announce that he’s not going to be so constrained.

Then again, maybe it was a just a joke.

— Bud Norman