Natural Born Campaign-Killer?

Canal-birthed McCain, meet China-calved Luce

Yesterday’s New York Times’ had a story spotlighting the semi-serious debate over whether or not John McCain, having been born in the Panama Canal Zone, is eligible to run for President. You see, in the Constitution (to be precise, four paragraphs into Article II, Section 1) you’ll find this: “No person except a natural born citizen … shall be eligible to the office of President.” So the question is what, exactly, does “natural born” mean?

Political Americans born abroad—George Romney (Mexico), Lowell Weicker (Paris), Barry Goldwater (Arizona territory)—have wondered, and naturally determined the law to be on their side. But none actually made it to the White House, so it’s an unsettled matter.

Well, CJR is proud to build on The New York Times’ list of great men who’ve parsed the phrase by referring readers to “Time… Fortune… Life… Luce”, an irreverent 1936 New Yorker profile of Time and Fortune co-founder and Life owner Henry Luce, famously born to missionary parents in China. The article, by Wolcott Gibbs, is written in a send-up of classic Time style—light on articles, and full of false titles and reverse syntax. (It’s the piece that coined the eternal parody-quip “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.”) Here’s the Constitutionally relevant section:

Accused by many of Fascist leanings, of soaring journalistic ambitions, much & conflicting is the evidence on Luce political faith, future plans […] Most persistent, most fantastic rumor, however, declares that Yale-man Luce already has a wistful eye on the White House. Reported this recently Chicago’s Ringmaster, added: “A legally-minded friend… told him that his Chinese birth made him ineligible. Luce dashed to another lawyer to check. Relief! He was born of American parents and properly registered at the Consulate.”

Well. Two American parents, diplomatic approval, McCain has nothing to worry about, if it’s simple as that.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.