Thursday, September 10, 2009


I've been trying to straighten out some thoughts I've been having lately about civility in American politics enough to create a blog post or two on that subject. You can look for that in the near future, if you care to.

On a related note, the political world is abuzz this morning because of the decidedly uncivil outburst last night by Rep. Joe Wilson (R.-SC) during the president's address to a joint session of Congress on health care reform.

Wilson's episode came at a particularly misleading portion of the president's speech. What little health-care legislation that the public has been able to see absolutely does provide for abortion on demand to be covered and absolutely does not require that people be U.S. citizens to qualify for government-run health insurance. Amendments meant to fix these particularly atrocious parts of a bad House bill were shot down in committee--indicating that they're in there by malevolent design rather than gross negligence.

At any rate, Obama was purring right along, smoothly, glibly and, as always, indirectly mischaracterizing what others have said so that he can conveniently call them liars or call their objections "scare tactics," when up pipes a lone voice:

"You lie!"

Now, it's not as if no one has expressed disagreement with this president. It's not as if there weren't smatterings of disgruntled groans (I assume mostly among Republican lawmakers) during the president's speech.

But for someone to up and announce what needed no announcing, to loudly proclaim with his mouth what everyone in the room and what anyone listening--whether he cares to admit it or not--can see with his own eyes and hear with his own ears...well, that was either a bold act of political courage or a disgraceful act of nearly unimaginable rudeness.

If you're in the former camp--and I admit I am--you have to stop and think about what it means for stating the obvious to be considered an act of courage. It's not like Obama hasn't said everything he said last night before, ad nauseum. We've heard all these same vague platitudes, silky-smooth insults and straw men from him before. Yet those politicians who disagree with him insist on doing so so tentatively that sometimes it's hard to tell that they disagree at all, and when they do, they take issue only with the driest matters of policy. Certainly, they never have called him out on his insulting tone and dishonest poses before. But I guess the setting--a joint session of the U.S. Congress--and his slightly more sarcastic tone and his just a whit more noticeable air of entitlement last night made his nonsense just that much more execrable than before, and just a little more impossible for at least one obscure southern politician to smile and nod his head through.

So the naive child in "The Emperor's New Clothes" has been replaced by the angry South Carolina congressman. And surely the little kid can be forgiven for disregarding the rules of polite behavior more than the middle-aged man. I'm pretty sure it's considered out of order for a member of the House to shout "you lie!" at the head of state while he's trying to make a speech.

Yet consider the context and (yet again) the setting: Vice President Joe Biden said that Wilson's outburst "demeaned the institution" of the U.S. Congress. Under normal circumstances, I'd have to agree with him.

But these circumstances are far from normal. A president has the constitutional prerogative to call a joint session of Congress. The tradition has been, though, for each house of Congress to decide separately when it will meet, with the president delivering his "State of the Union" address before a joint session once a year, only calling any additional joint session in the direst of emergencies.

Obama has said at different times in the past that 5o million or 45 million Americans are without health care. Last night he cited that figure at 37 million, I suppose because he found it convenient to temporarily stop labeling illegal aliens as "Americans" (the actual figure is closer to 13 million actual Americans who want to buy health care but can't), and that is, officially anyway, his paradigm of an emergency.

But the real emergency here is that Obama's political bacon is getting burned up in the fire that he ignited. Public opposition to health-care reform that he wanted to be a done deal before Congress' August recess has been growing for two months now. The more he opened his mouth, the more that "conversation" among equal citizens began to look like a peasant revolt against an entitled elite.

So Obama had to go before the cameras to work his charm...again. And to lend some gravitas to what basically amounts to a glorified publicity stunt, he turned the show into a joint session of Congress. Then he preceded to tell the same old smooth, glib story he has been since he assumed power ("The time for talk is over; the time to act is now." "We can't wait." "Shut up and do it now," etc., etc.), only with just a little more edge to it.

If doing all that doesn't amount to "demeaning the institution," I don't think that Joe Wilson can hurt it any more by being rude.


  1. It is funny reading this while we have Rush talking on the radio about the same topic right now in the house.

    I completely agree. I only heard about 30 seconds of the speech last night, but if I had deigned to make a reply, it would have been along the same lines as Wilson. Yes, I guess it is rude to yell out at the president, but I am happy that someone finally said what the rest of us have been thinking.

    And, I love your blog. You write smart and good.

  2. My first thought was that Mr. Wilson (or should I call him Congressman even though he didn't earn that title - it was more bestowed on him by the people of his district) was out of line. The problem I had was that the interrupted part was the first part of Obama's speech that I heard.

    I was sure that Wilson was accurate in calling him a liar but it wasn't until I heard some of the lies myself that I more and more was happy that someone announced the obvious to the oblivious in the crowd (and there's plenty of them).

    The most insulting part of Obama's act is his daily talk of "misinformation." It blows me away that he has the nerve to accuse the other side of spewing misinformation moments after accusing doctors of preferring to amputate a diabetic patient's foot rather than helping them to manage their disease. Doctors do that, according to Obama, because of the $50,000 that they can make performing an amputation. No offense, but I don't want my Internist or Family Practitioner getting anywhere near me with a saw (I'll find a surgeon) and of course a surgeon doesn't make 5% of $50,000 for amputating a foot.

    Of course, the President's chief lie/misinformation is that there is a healthcare crisis at all. I'm 100% behind fixing the problems with our health care system (especially for Americans that really need help paying for necessary care) but do we really have a crisis? I can't recall ever seeing someone dying outside of a hospital emergency room because they can't get in. You'd think tens of thousands of people die every year because they can't get care in this country. The real healthcare crisis is the possibility that tens of thousands will die from H1N1 this winter while the Secretary of Health and Human Services runs around doing talk shows with the President's agenda being her only concern.

    That Mr. Wilson managed to contain himself and only call Obama a liar one time makes me feel like he was only slightly out of line. If he had done it every time the President told a lie...that would've been too much. Somebody wake up the Sergeant at Arms!

  3. And everything you have written has now been discredited by the humiliating admission that you were listening to RUSH LIMBAUGH! It is truly sad that right-wing extremists like Rush are more about demonizing Obama than in actually opposing health-care reform. And who in their right mind actually believes that Wilson's outburst was a "bold act of political courage?" This was not some town hall meeting. It was a speech to the joint sessions of Congress, something that is as close to sacred American political tradition as we have. These guys are suppose to be our leaders, not kids on a playground who resort to shouting and name calling when they don't agree.

    Obama’s overarching point is accurate: the legislation would not allow illegal immigrants to obtain the proposed government subsidies that would make it easier for low-income individuals and families to afford health insurance.

  4. You know, an admission of belonging to Rush Limbaugh's listenership might be considered humiliating in the faculty lounge, but that admission doesn't do any credit or discredit to a thing I've said here. I'm aware that there are interpretations of these events other than mine. If my interpretations are not as good as others' or even if they're laughable (as it's possible they could be), it's not because of the way Limbaugh conducts himself.

    And yeah, given the current climate, I think Wilson's act was pretty gutsy. I'm just so disappointed that he felt he had to commit such an egregious breach of parliamentary protocol...

    Ok, you got me. I could care less, especially now that the House leadership is talking about "admonishing" him. The House of Representatives is bursting at the seams with unadmonished crooks like Charlie Rangel, so, like I've said, I'm just not shedding tears over Wilson's outburst.

    I defer to very few people when it comes to an awareness of this country's past or awe and respect for its institutions and traditions. That may sound boastful to some ears, or like I'm making fun to others, but I say it in all sincerity.

    It's because of that awareness that I know that the House floor is no place to genuflect (not even in the Presence of THE ONE) to the ghosts of the Charlie Rangels and Tip O'Neillses of yore. This is where the national non-kosher sausage is made and where men come to sell their souls to get funding for the East Texas Museum of Poisonous Reptiles.

    What I'm trying to say is it's the members of Congress who've made "the hallowed halls of the Capitol" the punchline to so many jokes. And Dear Leader turning a joint session into The Save Obama's Butt Telethon Starring Barack Obama came many decades too late to bring its sacred level on the "sacredometer" down to zero. Judging from their State of the Union behavior, the entire Democratic Party as constituted in 2005 would've backed me up on this:

    Obama's grasp of specifics (or at least his willingness to talk publicly about them) leaves us all rather lost in the wilderness to do battle with our competing interpretations, doesn't it? I notice you included the New York Times' interpretation as your last paragraph. But what the prez actually said was nowhere near as fastidiously defined: "There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This too is FALSE! The reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally," was the splutter-provoking statement.

    Here's what the Congressional Research Service had to say about that:

    "Under H.R. 3200, a 'Health Insurance Exchange' would begin operation in 2013 and would offer private plans alongside a public option…H.R. 3200 does not contain any restrictions on noncitzens—whether legally or illegally present, or in the United States temporarily or permanently—participating in the Exchange."

    Well, late is quickly becoming early here, Anonymous, so I need to quit now. But I'm genuinely glad to have your point of view on my blog whenever you like. I won't be able to argue with you every time, since I go on way too long about it, but I hope we'll clash again some time soon.

  5. Graham--

    I think it's often the insult to your intelligence, rather than the lie itself, that is what usually makes you angry when you're lied to.

    And yes, I see a possible campaign commercial for Wilson: "He only yelled 'LIAR!' one time during that whole speech! Joe Wilson: South Carolina's model of restraint."

  6. Anonymous... coward! Don't you love people who criticise anonymously?
    I'm not sure how I feel about the whole Joe Wilson thing. But somebody at work wondered how, in a joint session of Congress, anyone would know WHO he was calling a liar!

  7. Alison, I try to be as charitable as I can towards Anonymous, and cast doubt on his/her ability to reason, rather than on his/her motives for hiding his/her identity. I assume he/she has a very good reason for doing so.

    And yes, that's a point very well made: He could have been talking to anyone in the room.

  8. "Come let us reason together..."
    I wish you luck.


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