Why They Hated Clinton Then, Why They Hate Obama Now

“He is not an American citizen!” the Obama-hating Delaware woman rages in the latest viral YouTube video. “He is a citizen of Kenya. I am American … and I don’t want this flag to change. I want my country back!”

The entire rant is notable not just for the quivering hostility this unidentified woman expresses toward the president of the United States (she seems on the verge of tears at points) and the utter nonsense of her claim, but also for the fervent response of her fellow audience members: They, too, are entirely convinced that an imposter from Kenya has conned his way into the White House.

Of course they are. Right-wing media outlets—radio hosts, authors, Web sites, and even (randomly enough) Pat Boone—have devoted themselves to keeping the “controversy” alive. Actually, it’s only a part-time job for most of them: They’re also frantically warning their flock that the president is a socialist, “a Marxist mole,” and “the domestic terrorist in chief,” among other terrible things.

The video from Delaware is a wake-up call because it demonstrates how firmly this propaganda campaign has taken root within the shrunken, radicalized base of the Republican Party. It’s not just a few random kooks who believe their president is some kind of international criminal; it’s a significant chunk of one of America’s two major political parties.

And let’s be honest: Their concerns about citizenship and socialism and terrorism really have nothing to do with the facts. Obama produced a copy his birth certificate last year and its authenticity was independently verified. And the state of Hawaii has verified that it has the original certificate on file, that it is genuine, and that Obama was in fact born in the state in August 1961. And if that’s not enough, Hawaii’s two major newspapers, the Honolulu Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin, both printed birth announcements for Obama in August ’61.   

But still the conspiracy hysteria persists. What matters to the hard right isn’t whether the allegations they hurl at Obama are actually true; it’s whether they feel true. There are several elements at work here. The most essential is that Obama is a Democrat, which, for them, automatically marks him as unfit for the presidency. But that’s only part of it.

There’s also the fact that his most ardent supporters come from the more liberal end of the Democratic Party—students, academics, artists, environmentalists, antiwar activists and so on. The right has been conditioned to view these groups with reflexively irrational hostility; they are not what Sarah Palin would call “real Americans,” and Obama’s association with them is a source of rage.

Then there’s race. Having established that Obama is not just a Democrat but one who is championed by his party’s “far left,” his dark skin, African ancestry and Muslim middle name all enter into the equation. The right is willing to overlook such features if you embrace their domestic and foreign prejudices (see: the enduring prominence of Amir Taheri), but not if you stand in opposition to them, as Obama generally does. Consequently, Obama’s heritage functions only as confirmation to the right of how un-American he is.

By far, though, the most significant source of irrational Obama hatred is the simplest: He’s popular and he knows how to win.

There was a brief time, if you can remember, when Obama actually didn’t bother the right that much. It was the spring and summer of 2007, when he was the scrappy—and hopeless—underdog waging a futile campaign against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. In those days, anyone bearing the Clinton name was still evil incarnate to the right; Obama was just a harmless lamb about to be slaughtered.

The Clintons were reviled by conservatives for many of the same reasons Obama now is. In fact, the attacks they endured during Bill Clinton’s presidency are startlingly similar—in source, psychology, and tone—to the ones Obama now faces. Bill Clinton, too, committed the sin of being a Democrat identified with “un-American” elements (Vietnam protesters, draft dodgers and pot smokers in the ’60s, and Hollywood celebrities in the ’90s) and—worse—of knowing how to win elections.

“The thought makes me sick to have this son of a bitch of such low character commanding this country,” Robert Dornan, then a Republican congressman from California, said of Clinton in 1993.

Dornan, who regularly guest-hosted Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and even ran a campaign for president in 1996, also suggested that Clinton had been recruited by the KGB while visiting Moscow as a student in 1969.

And he was hardly alone in his confident lunacy. Jerry Falwell promoted a video that accused the Clintons of murdering political opponents. Phil Crane, a Republican congressman from Illinois and a 1980 presidential candidate, circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter that recommended the same video—because, he claimed, it dealt with questions “that have been covered only piecemeal thus far in the media.”

And when in the summer of ’93, Vince Foster, an old Clinton family confidante, killed himself, the right just about lost it, convincing themselves that he’d actually been offed by the Clintons. John Linder, a G.O.P. congressman from Georgia, raised the possibility of murder at a Congressional hearing. The right-wing group Accuracy in Media, which is now hot on the Obama citizenship story, took out a full-page ad in The New York Times promoting the murder theory. A bumper-sticker popped up: “If Vince Foster had a handgun, he’d be alive today.”

Facts mattered for nothing. The U.S. Park Police discovered Foster’s lifeless body and immediately concluded that it was an obvious suicide. So did the original Whitewater independent counsel, Robert Fiske. But the conspiracies lived on. Of course Bill Clinton had orchestrated the murder. He was a deceitful, un-American figure—what wouldn’t he do to cling to power?

The right’s Clinton hatred endured long after he left office, but then it abruptly ended—at the exact moment that Obama ceased being a desperate long shot and started being the likely Democratic nominee. It was then that the aggressive propaganda campaign, the one that prompted that crazy woman in Delaware to wave her flag and shout about Kenya, to destroy Obama was launched.

But something else happened then. No longer able to win the White House, the Clintons assumed a new role in the right’s propaganda: as sympathetic characters, victims of the evil, un-American Obama machine.

Pat Buchanan, who called Hillary a threat to “God’s country” in 1992, suddenly embraced her as a blue-collar heroine. The National Review’s Rich Lowry, who’d branded Hillary “a practitioner of the odious political style of the enlightened Baby Boomer” in the ’90s, praised her as “a serious person, afflicted, as she put it once, with ‘a responsibility gene.’” Richard Mellon Scaife, who’d bankrolled much of the Clinton takedown effort in the ’90s, forgave Bill Clinton’s philandering, pronounced him a charismatic leader, and his newspaper endorsed Hillary in the Pennsylvania primary.

So maybe Obama should take heart. A decade or two from now, when a new Democrat emerges with a real chance to win the White House, the same people who are now calling him a Kenyan terrorist plant will probably look back on his presidency as the good old days.

Why They Hated Clinton Then, Why They Hate Obama Now