Opinion
              U.S. President Barack Obama walks away from the podium after a press conference at the conclusion of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Kapolei, Hawaii on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011.  (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Why did top Democrats try to kill a pro-Obama documentary?

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Stewart Lawrence
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      Stewart Lawrence

      Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.

It was Hawaiian-born film maker Gloria Borland’s worst nightmare. After struggling for nearly six years to complete her first feature-length documentary, “Barack Obama: Made in Hawaii,” Borland was feeling hopeful again. The Washington Post had just featured her in a flattering profile. The piece noted that her two-hour film, based largely on extensive interviews with Obama’s childhood associates, as well as archival footage, was in post-production, and that Borland still needed funding. And she was starting to get calls.

But one of those calls, from Michele Griffin, a major Democratic Party donor in Virginia, put a damper on Borland’s enthusiasm. Griffin wasn’t calling to donate, but to make a guilt-ridden confession. “They told us not to fund you, Gloria. The DNC [Democratic National Committee]. They didn’t want to see the film aired. That’s why I never helped you last year,” she said.

Borland was flabbergasted. She’d seen hints of possible trouble previously but had never connected the dots. In 2011, a well-connected Washington lawyer was ecstatic after viewing one of Borland’s early video reels, and eagerly pledged his support. So did a former Democratic congressman from California, Mel Levine. But they soon stopped taking her phone calls or even answering her emails. At the time, she merely found it odd.

But after Griffin’s call, suddenly it all made sense.

“It’s pretty clear that the word went out from the DNC to stay away from ‘Barack Obama: Made in Hawaii,’” Borland says. “Most people first check with the DNC before contributing to a project like this, and very few top Democratic supporters I contacted ever followed through.”

Griffin, in fact, had never asked the DNC’s permission before deciding to push ahead with fundraising on Borland’s behalf. She shared Borland’s love of Hawaii and her fondness for Obama. And she thought Borland’s project held enormous political potential.

But a top DNC official — one that Griffin still refuses to name — didn’t think so. He called Griffin at her home and all but ordered her to stop raising money for “Barack Obama: Made in Hawaii.” “He was incredibly rude about it, too,” she recalls.

When I first heard about Borland’s film, I was somewhat skeptical myself. Obama had not lived most of his life in Hawaii, after all. He spent much of his early childhood in Indonesia. Those were parts of his biography that had drawn the most attention of conservatives who wanted to portray the 44th president as something other than a “true blue” American. So I understood Borland’s desire to set the record straight about Obama’s birthplace – the film really closes the door on this issue – and to fill in such a critical part of the president’s biography.

But it wasn’t until I started reviewing raw footage from the dozens of taped interviews she’d conducted with Obama’s childhood friends and classmates, his sister, as well as his teachers and the current Hawaii governor Neil Abercrombie, who knew Obama and his parents when he was still a child, that the full weight and importance of her film hit me.

Even in post-production, “Barack Obama: Made in Hawaii” is an impressive documentary. No one in the print or broadcast media has collected this much material on the early background of the president, and for historical reasons alone, it should be completed and given a wide airing.

But, in fact, what’s most impressive about the film may be its central argument: according to Borland, Obama has brought to his presidency a personality, a political style and a set of policy ideas that were forged in his native Hawaii. Forget about Obama the Harvard lawyer, or the Chicago community organizer. “It’s just like Michelle Obama says.  If you really want to understand Barack, you have to understand Hawaii,” Borland says.