Both President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush can say they have visited a mosque as president. Can you guess which one has gotten slammed for it by today's presidential candidates? Need a hint?
"Maybe he feels comfortable there," Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said Wednesday.
Ha. Ha. Yes, the Donald is implying that the president is a Muslim, a myth that is so absurd — yet so widely believed — that even the president pokes fun at it. Humor can be an effective rejoinder to such idiocy, except to those who suffer from irony deficit disorder, a common malady on the extreme edges of politics. They can't take a joke.
Throughout his presidency, Obama, a Christian, has pushed back against that Muslim myth and the equally false claim that he is not a natural-born American citizen. That claim was famously advanced without evidence by Trump, among others.
Asked more recently about it, Trump scoffed, saying he doesn't "talk about that anymore." Sure. He doesn't have to. Polls suggest a substantial number of Republicans — and even a few Democrats — think one or both of these canards is true. Some people believe what they want to believe with a rigor that no hard evidence to the contrary can penetrate.
Obama acknowledged that tangle of lies in good humor during his speech Wednesday at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, a major house of worship and community service center in the town that calls itself "Charm City."
Even Thomas Jefferson, Obama noted, had been accused of being a Muslim back in the polarized political atmosphere of his day.
Obama can relate. Calling Obama a Muslim has become a lifestyle choice for many folks, a way of announcing where you stand on today's political spectrum.
We have come to expect that sort of cynical birther fraud from Trump, who seldom allows facts to get in the way of his cheap shots.
But it was deeply disappointing to hear Sen. Marco Rubio, who usually is a classier act, deliver a blow just as low as Trump's with higher-minded language. Without going full birther, Rubio on the evening after Obama spoke simply misrepresented what Obama said.
"He gave a speech at a mosque," Rubio said during a town hall meeting in Dover, N.H., "basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims. Of course there's discrimination in America, of every kind. But the bigger issue is radical Islam. This constant pitting people against each other, I can't stand that. It's hurting our country badly."
Say what? That wasn't what Obama said at all. Quite the opposite. Only in today's goofy political atmosphere can the president's call for unity be viewed as an instrument for division.
Yet, as much as Obama has been criticized by some for doing too much for Muslims, he has been slammed by others for doing too little.
The hashtag #TooLateObama streams with accusations of hypocrisy against Obama for "anti-Muslim policies" including his escalation of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, even though media reports describe the identification of drone targets as "an imperfect best guess."
Still it is striking to compare the blowback President Obama has received for visiting a mosque in his eighth year of office with the visit President Bush paid to a Washington mosque six days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001.
Standing with Islamic holy men, Bush spoke passionately against the harassment of Arabs, Muslims and Sikhs, who often are mistaken for Muslims. He also spoke about the need to respect Islam and fight those who try to hijack Islam for violent purposes.
Many Muslims and others have called on Obama to make a similarly public act of leadership and statesmanship. But Bush's speech came during a moment of unusual national unity, the aftermath of the biggest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor.
Members of both parties in Congress stood together that week and sang "God Bless America" on the U.S. Capitol steps. A similar attack today would probably bring an impeachment bill from the president's right wing opponents.
Sure, Obama should have stood up sooner against anti-Muslim discrimination. Still his voice of reason is welcome, even when it's late.