As anyone who pays even a modicum of attention to news and current events knows, last night President Obama delivered his much anticipated speech on health care reform to Congress. As speeches go it was pretty good. I hate to admit it, but he is probably the most gifted public speaker to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. since Jack Kennedy. Yet his speech was somewhat overshadowed by the rather surly reception it got from the Republican minority. There were some cat calls and rather vocal hissing during his address. But the scene that will almost certainly be remembered was when Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) loudly shouted "You Lie!" at the President right after Mr. Obama made the (debatable) claim that his health insurance plan would not cover illegal aliens.
Setting aside for the moment the reasonable question of whether the President's statement was in fact accurate, calling the President of the United States a liar on national television during an address to a joint session of Congress was a grave breach in etiquette. There are limits to legitimate expressions of dissent and that was clearly beyond the pale. To the credit of all involved; the leadership of the GOP realized this immediately and spoke with Rep. Wilson after the speech. For his part Congressman Wilson phoned the White House to apologize and followed up with a written apology released to the press.
Of course Congress has a history of "lively" debate and heated exchanges. While I don't think we want to go back to those days, my Godfather pointed out in some recent correspondence that members of Congress back in the day were not as restrained in their passions as they are today. Fisticuffs were not unknown, members in the Senate (especially during the years predating the Civil War) often carried weapons onto the floor of the chamber and dueling was common. Perhaps the most stunning display of hot headedness occurred on May 22nd 1856 when Congressman Preston Brooks (also of South Carolina) attacked Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) on the floor of the Senate and nearly beat him to death with a cane while an accomplice held other Senators at bay with a loaded pistol. Senator Sumner had recently delivered a scalding and highly personal attack on Senator Andrew Butler a near relative of Brooks.
It is quite possible that Republican heckling and Wilson's outburst could have unintended consequences. If the Republicans came across to Americans as behaving badly or disrespecting the President then it might damage their ability to politically challenge Obama on the health care reforms now being debated in Washington. Wilson appears to have already become something of a hero to those on the far right. But it is worth recalling that Preston Brooks also became a hero in the South following his attack on Senator Sumner. He was buried in an avalanche of fan mail with many southerners sending him new walking sticks to replace the one he broke over Sumner’s head.
In the North the reaction was quite different. Sumner was a not terribly popular radical abolitionist whose often incendiary rhetoric alienated many more moderate political figures in the North. The North itself was by no means abolitionist in its sentiment up to this point. Indeed most Northerners, if not actually sympathetic to the South, were at least largely indifferent and felt that Southern "domestic customs and institutions" were no business of theirs.
But the beating of Sumner on the Senate floor changed that. In an instant it galvanized the North and infuriated public opinion. There was universal condemnation of Brooks and overnight the South became a caricature for political backwardness and violent repression of free speech. Southerners were vilified as near barbarians. Northern public opinion had permanently turned against the South and this would have profound consequences for the future. Most historians credit the incident with helping to propel the Republican Party (hitherto a small abolitionist party) to national political prominence.
Obviously it would be grossly unfair to put Joe Wilson's rudeness in the same category as the savage beating inflicted on a United States Senator a century and half ago. But it is worth noting that in politics public opinion can be swayed by sentiment as easily as by facts. This is a lesson those opposed to the political agenda of the president need to keep in mind. President Obama is not above criticism and we must refute any effort to put him on some sort of dais. But we must also be careful to recall that he is not simply a prime minister such as exists in Great Britain who can be challenged on the floor of the House of Commons (though even there Wilson's outburst would have been out of bounds). He is also our head of state.
Like it or not, the Founders chose not to establish a monarchical head of state and instead combined the office with the head of the government. There is an old saying in the military that we salute the rank, never the man. Where the president is concerned I think this rule should be observed as far as possible. Barrack Obama is a political person with a political agenda. That makes him a fair target for criticism. But as the head of state he is also the ceremonial head of the nation. And yes that does mean that sometimes we need to bite our tongue and save the attacks for the right venue.
It now remains to be seen if this unfortunate incident has legs or if it will be quickly forgotten by the public. I think we may count on the Democrats to do all they can to make political hay of it. Republicans, if they wish to be successful, need to stay on message and avoid making our political battles personal.