News & Politics

A President From Panama?

If the presidential race comes down to John McCain versus Barack Obama, it will be the first time the presidential nominees were not born in the continental United States.

McCain was born in Panama; Obama was born in Hawaii.

Easterners dominated the presidency for the first 150 years of American history. No US president had been born west of the Mississippi River until Herbert Hoover of Iowa won in 1924. Perceived westerners Andrew Jackson of Tennessee was born in South Carolina; Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was born in Kentucky.

McCain’s eligibility to be president has been questioned in two lawsuits, one filed in New Hampshire and the other in California. The Constitution restricts the office to natural-born citizens.

McCain has hired Ted Olson, the same DC attorney who argued and won the landmark Bush v. Gore case, to take on this somewhat easier case. Olson was born in Chicago.

Olson, in turn, solicited the support of a foe in that case, Harvard professor Laurence Tribe. Tribe has more than a passing interest in the issue—he was born in Shanghai.

Together they produced a bipartisan memo that not only supports McCain’s right to be president but says—even though no one asked—that Obama could still have been president even had Hawaii not yet been a state when he was born. Olson’s memo notes that there already has been a presidential candidate—Barry Goldwater, a native of Arizona—who was born in a state before statehood was conferred.

Having a president born in Panama could present a challenge for presidential hobbyists, who for the first time will need a passport to complete a circuit of presidential birthplaces.

This article is from the May 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from the issue, click here.

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