There’s a little sentence I say all the time to my kids: These are the things I shouldn’t have to say out loud. Now, let’s acknowledge that this doesn’t happen in my finest moments of parenting — rather, I say that in my moments of utter exasperation. But that quite accurately describes my feelings about our national political scene at the moment. I say that sentence right after I’ve scolded my son for the 15th time in one afternoon to stop antagonizing his sister. He knows better, I know he knows better, he knows I know he knows better. I shouldn’t have to say it out loud.
And that was my immediate thought when I heard Mitt Romney made a birther joke today. We shouldn’t have to say out loud why he can’t do that. It ought to be understood. It goes without saying that that was the wrong thing to do. It doesn’t get to slide as “just a joke.”
And I’ll also acknowledge — it was a funny joke. Perhaps that’s why it was hard for him to resist. I’ve read he has a biting wit, and we rarely, if ever, see any emotion from him…he’s almost Gore-like in that regard, so I can see how it would be hard to turn down that easy, funny line.
But it was the absolute wrong thing to do.
The birther movement has combined many of the ugly parts of modern American culture. It celebrates ignorance and xenophobia and racism all at once. No, Romney, no one’s ever asked to see your birth certificate because you’re a white man who “looks like” he’s from here. Your father was a nationally recognized politician. By outward appearance, you meet the stereotype of an American political leader.
Barack Obama was born here, graduated from some of the finest schools in the country, and has served as an elected official for the past 15 years. And yet, to this day, there’s a fringe movement that denies his American citizenship. There’s not one shred of evidence to back up their claims. But the very idea that they assert his illegitimacy in the first place is what’s so repugnant — the birther movement has the same origin as the “voter fraud” laws being pushed in states nationwide. Both movements deny the legitimacy of people of color as valid participants in the American political process. Who asked to see Bill Clinton’s birth certificate? John Kerry’s?
So — when Mitt Romney makes a joke about it, he’s giving credence to the illegitimate assertion that Obama’s not an American. If you’re running for president, you have a moral responsibility to lead the nation to our better selves. Romney utterly failed. If he really thinks that’s just a joke, if he doesn’t understand the significance and the weight of a joke like that, he’s not morally ready.