by John Crewdson
Stand back while I drive a stake through the heart of the week's Blogospherical Conundrum: Is Arizona Sen. John McCain, who looks set to become the Republican presidential nominee, constitutionally qualified to be president?
Article II of the U.S. Constitution utters that "no person except a natural born Citizen... shall be eligible to the Office of President."
But what does "natural born Citizen" mean?
When the same question has been asked about California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the answer is always a flat no. The constitution specifies that presidents must be "natural born" American citizens, and Schwarzenegger, although a naturalized citizen, took his first breath in Austria, where his father had been a Nazi storm trooper.
George Romney, the father of Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who just cleared the way for McCain by dropping his own bid for this year's Republican presidential nomination, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico.
But when the elder Romney ran for president in 1968 the issue of his constitutional eligibility for the presidency never reached ramming speed before he was forced to retire from the campaign after claiming he had been "brainwashed" by the Johnson administration on an inspection visit to Vietnam.
When John McCain was born in August of 1936, his father, also named John, was a Naval officer stationed in the Panama Canal Zone, then a U.S.-administered and protected territory.
The child of two U.S. citizen parents is automatically a "birthright" U.S. citizen, no matter where in the world the child is born. If only one parent is a U.S. citizen, however, then that parent must show that he or she lived in the U.S. for at least ten years prior to the child’s birth, with at least five of those years after the age of 14.
Had McCain been born in Zambia to a Norwegian mother and an American father, he would have fallen into the second category. But both his parents were American citizens, so he became a "birthright" citizen at birth.
Let's set the Swamp's Time Machine to March 16, 1790, the second session of the very first U.S. Congress.
The Constitution was only a year old, and Congress was busy passing laws explaining and amplifying what it various clauses and phrases actually meant.
According to the Act of March 26, 1790, 1 Stat. 103, "the children of citizens of the United States, that may be borne beyond sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural-born citizens of the United States."
So, to become a "natural born" American you don't need to be born in the continental U.S. But you do need to have two parents who are U.S. citizens. By that standard, McCain passes.
To nail things down even more tightly, Congress later stipulated that individuals born in the Republic of Panama or the Canal Zone after February 1904 were automatically U.S. citizens.
McCain was born in the large U.S. Navy hospital in the canal zone, and the issue has been confused, in part, because of the Pentagon's dictum that "Despite widespread popular belief, U. S. military installations abroad and U. S. diplomatic or consular facilities are not part of the United States within the meaning of the 14th Amendment. A child born on the premises of such a facility is not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States and does not acquire U. S. citizenship by reason of birth."
Those sorts of warnings are intended to keep women who are about to give birth from rushing into a U.S. Embassy parking lot from or some other U.S. government facility abroad in the belief that their child (and, by extension, the rest of the family) will automatically become American citizens.
But the dictum says nothing about the children of U.S. citizens, and it has no bearing on McCain's case.
Ron Gotcher, an experienced immigration lawyer who has studied the question, has no doubt the Supreme Court believes a "birthright" citizen, no matter where he or she born, is also a "natural-born citizen."
"I really can’t stand McCain and I’d love to see him knocked out of the picture, but I can’t see it happening over this issue," says Gotcher, who is an Obama supporter in Southern California.