Feature

Joe Wilson and the new civility

Just how far out of bounds was Rep. Wilson’s “You lie!” outburst to President Obama, really?

Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” shout to President Obama “struck a new low” in our civil political debate, said USA Today in an editorial, surpassing the “previous low point,” when Democrats booed President Bush’s 2005 State of the Union speech. Sure, presidents have endured “grumbling and booing” from Congress before, especially in recent times, “but no one has disrespected the presidency as Wilson did.”

Yes, Wilson’s outburst “sets a new low bar,” said Kathleen Parker in The Washington Post. But for all the overblown “post-Wilson harrumphing,” we forget that “histrionics” is “a time-honored tradition” in American politics. And thank goodness, too. “What’s more memorable: a president’s rehearsed assertions from the podium or a bunch of congressmen booing the leader of the free world?”

Snickering, booing, and even soft group heckling of the president go back to at least 1993, said Juliet Lapidos in Slate. Wilson’s “loud and denigrating retort,” however, marks the first time a congressman has gone beyond “communal muttering.” And his charge of lying wouldn’t even be tolerated in Britain’s famously “raucous” Parliament.

“All presidents get vilified,” said Richard Cohen in The Washington Post. And Wilson’s lack of respect toward Obama, while “both appalling and shocking,” is no match for the ugliness Lyndon Johnson faced. The reason is the same, though—their political enemies didn’t consider them “legitimate” presidents. With Obama, it’s hard not to think that the irrational animosity of GOP critics and “birthers” is based on “bigotry”—that the U.S. president should be white.

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