Friday, September 05, 2008

Not so silly

Brother Geode asked a question on my post about Obama's citizenship status that deserves an answer, but it's taken me a while to get around to it. So here goes.

Geode writes "C'mon man, what about the McCain/Panama controversy? Where's your fair n' balanced? When that tempest comes a-blowin', you gotta show BOTH SIDES of the teacup."

I don't know whether he means to suggest that the McCain controversy is equally silly as the Obama one, but for the sake of something to type about, I will assume he does.

Turns out, McCain's birthplace is an actual issue, one in which I have something of a personal interest.

The New York Times had a nice piece about this a few months ago, but here's the essence of it:

The Constitution doesn't set the bar very high to qualify to be president - you have to be at least 35 years old, have lived in the United States for at least 14 years, and be a "Natural born Citizen." Easy, right?

The problem here is that "natural born citizen" doesn't have any particular legal meaning. So right from the start people were arguing about what that should mean. Clearly it means you must have been a citizen from birth - no naturalized persons need apply. But could it also mean that you must be physically born inside the United States?

Congress quickly tried to settle the issue with a 1790 law that said that yes, anyone who was a citizen from birth was considered "Natural born" no matter where in the world they were born. But that law was eventually repealed and there has never been a legal test - a few nominees, including Barry Goldwater and George Romney, were born outside of the actual United States (Goldwater in Arizona when it was just a territory and Romney in Mexico, where his parents were working), but none of them won.

So now comes John McCain, whose father was an admiral who happened to be stationed in the U.S. controlled Panama Canal Zone in 1936, when young John was born. So although he is clearly a citizen from birth, he was born outside the 48 existing states at the time.

It seems likely that should McCain win, someone somewhere will try to challenge his eligibility. And that's good, because it seems to be unlikely that any court would actually entertain such a lawsuit for very long and the issue would be settled once and for all.

And that's a good thing for me. Not that I want to be president, but because it is a question that has interested me since I was a child. It happens that I was born in Canada, where my father was a diplomat. Because my parents are both Americans, I am a U.S. citizen from birth. And because my father was a diplomat on an official mission, I cannot claim Canadian citizenship under their law (The U.S. has the same law for diplomats posted here). It causes me occasional headaches when I cross the U.S. border because the Border Patrol takes one look at my passport and demands to know when I was naturalized as a U.S. citizen. But it also allows me to irritate bureaucrats who demand my birth certificate - I have a birth certificate, of course, but I like to produce my official "Consular Report of Birth Abroad," which by law has the same effect as a birth certificate in terms of proving citizenship. It's fun to watch some clerk frown and squint and try to figure out what this document represents.

But the question still lingers for me - am I considered a "Natural Born Citizen" under the Constitution? Should McCain win, I may finally have my answer.