On Wednesday, New York Times congressional reporter Carl Hulse reported a flaky story on an apparent controversy over whether John McCain's birthplace (the Panama Canal Zone, where his Navy officer father was stationed in 1936) makes the Arizona senator ineligible for the presidency. Article II of the Constitution declares that only a "natural-born citizen" can serve as president.
In "McCain's Canal Zone Birth Prompts Queries About Whether That Rules Him Out," Hulse reported the McCain campaign is researching the question due to "mounting interest" and "Internet buzz." (Interestingly, most of that "buzz" seems to have originated not among liberals, but on right-wing websites the Times would not normally acknowledge the existence of.)
James Taranto at Opinion Journal pointed out that this is an old story -- the Washington Post dealt with it back in 1998 (making it even older than the trumped-up McCain story the Times ran last week) and saw no obstacle to McCain taking office.
Mr. McCain's likely nomination as the Republican candidate for president and the happenstance of his birth in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936 are reviving a musty debate that has surfaced periodically since the founders first set quill to parchment and declared that only a "natural-born citizen" can hold the nation's highest office.
Almost since those words were written in 1787 with scant explanation, their precise meaning has been the stuff of confusion, law school review articles, whisper campaigns and civics class debates over whether only those delivered on American soil can be truly natural born. To date, no American to take the presidential oath has had an official birthplace outside the 50 states.
"There are powerful arguments that Senator McCain or anyone else in this position is constitutionally qualified, but there is certainly no precedent," said Sarah H. Duggin, an associate professor of law at Catholic University who has studied the issue extensively. "It is not a slam-dunk situation."
Bottom line, Hulse found -- his birthplace most probably doesn't rule McCain out. The question has theoretical interest, but the Times's timing must be questioned in the wake of last Thursday's misfired hit piece on McCain and the lobbyist: Yet another blurry, negative story about McCain since he more or less clinched the Republican nomination.
It's no wonder the Times is losing the confidence of the public. The pollsters at Rasmussen Reports clocked the paper's approval rating at 24% (with 44% disapproval), numbers that make George W. Bush a conquering hero in comparison.
The story was picked up by the CBS "Early Show," and the MRC's Kyle Drennen captured host Harry Smith's opening tease:
"Born in the USA. John McCain wasn't. Can he still be president?"