WASHINGTON -- The false allegation that President Barack Obama was born in another country is more than a fact-free smear.
Marked by accusations and backstabbing, it's the story of how a small but intense movement called "birthers" rose from a handful of people prone to seeing conspiracies, aided by the Internet, magnified without evidence by eager radio and cable TV hosts, and eventually ratified by a small group of Republican politicians working to keep the story alive on the floors of Congress and the campaign trails of the Midwest.
It's a powerful story about what experts call political paranoia over a new face in a time of anxiety and rapid change -- the sort of viral message that can take hold among a sliver of the populace that's ready to believe that their new president is a fraud, and just as ready to angrily dismiss anyone who disagrees with them as part of the conspiracy.
"He is NOT an American citizen," yelled a woman at a town hall meeting in Delaware, angrily confronting a congressman. "I don't want this flag to change. I want my country back."
When Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., responded that Obama is a citizen, she and others in the room jeered him.
"It's a fascinating phenomenon," said Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs and author of the recent book "Political Paranoia."
"They are not searching for the truth. They are searching for anything that confirms their fixed idea, their malevolent idea. . . . It doesn't soothe people to tell them it's not legitimate. That makes them angry."
Birthers charge that Obama hasn't proved that he was born a U.S. citizen, and therefore isn't eligible to be president under the constitutional requirement that the president be 35 years old, be a resident of the country for at least 14 years, and be a natural-born citizen.
They also say that a birth certificate posted on the Internet by Obama during his campaign isn't the original, and a forgery anyway.
First, the 2007 document isn't a forgery. Independent experts from such groups as FactCheck.org at the University of Pennsylvania have examined it and said it's real.
Second, it's true that the 2007 document issued by the state of Hawaii, called a Certification of Live Birth, isn't a copy of the original 1961 document. The longer, original form would show more details, including the name of the doctor, according to copies of other 1961 birth certificates.
White House aides say only that Obama has produced his birth certificate. That's true. It is "A" birth certificate, issued by the state Health Department and acceptable to prove citizenship to the federal government for purposes of obtaining a passport.
It's also true that it isn't "THE" original birth certificate.
Regardless, Hawaii state officials said again last week that they've examined the original and affirmed that it shows that Obama was born there.
Also, the two Honolulu newspapers report that they carried brief announcements of the birth of a boy to the Obamas in 1961. Said the Aug. 13 birth announcement in the Honolulu Advertiser: "Mr. and Mrs. Barack H. Obama, 6085 Kalanianaole Hwy, son, Aug. 4."
The Hawaii state Health Department says it supplied the lists of births for those announcements. Announcements supplied by families were longer, more personal and normally included the child's name.