In 1967, the play “MacBird!” opened in New York. It was (very) loosely based on Macbeth and, like it, told the story of an assassination and a palace coup, only in this case Lady Macbeth and her husband were not mythical Scots, but the first family of the United States. “MacBird!” accused Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson of being responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Naturally, given the times, it was a hit.
After the boorishness on display in the House chamber Wednesday night, it is useful to recall an uglier political era than the present one for some perspective, and it also useful to recall it for similarities. At the moment, nothing Barack Obama is going through compares in the least to the treatment Johnson got from his political enemies — on the left, not the right — but the reason is the same. Johnson was considered an illegitimate president. So is Obama.
Johnson’s supposed and keenly felt illegitimacy was a consequence of how he came into office — as Kennedy’s last-minute vice presidential choice and, upon his death, his successor. That Johnson was widely — and wrongly — perceived as a conservative southerner only deepened the animosity toward him. He was seen as both politically and culturally the anti-Kennedy, president by virtue of some sort of coup.
Obama is president in the standard way. But his illegitimacy continues to be questioned by the “birthers,” who insist he is not a native-born American, who demand to see the president’s birth certificate, and then, when they see it, insist it cannot be genuine. Neither evidence nor facts will dissuade them because they are the throes of an irrationality based on bigotry. An American president must be — ought to be — white.