“A wicked doer giveth heed to false lips; and a liar giveth ear to a naughty tongue.” Prov 17:4
The whole Joe Wilson incident has raised a series of questions about both the man and this country.
The first question that comes to mind is whether it is acceptable under any circumstances for an individual to confront the President in that forum, a nationally televised speech to both houses of Congress, and call him a liar?
The second question is what motivated the outburst?
Finally, what does it say about the man and the process?
For a thoughtful treatment of the first question we probably should look at a history of Presidential lies, the impact that those lies had on the country, and how the Congress reacted to those lies. Then we should examine this particular incident to determine whether the particular claim of Joe Wilson is supported. Then perhaps we can answer the first question.
The biggest recent presidential lies that come to mind are Bush’s claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and Clinton’s claim that he did not, “have sex with that woman”. In the first case, we invaded Iraq, toppled the government, destroyed their infrastructure, never found any weapons of mass destruction, opened the door to al Qaeda, and are still there eight years later. There were no immediate consequences for President Bush. The Republicans did suffer a fairly resounding defeat in 2008, but that could be attributed as much to the economy as the war in Iraq. President Clinton was brought up on impeachment charges, but ultimately not convicted. This investigation did significantly weaken the President and set the stage for a very close Republican win in 2000.
As far as Joe Wilson’s claim, it was in reaction to President Obama’s statement that the administration does not support extending benefits to illegal aliens. His specific objection was that the current house bill, though it requires proof to participate, doesn’t specify how. There was an amendment offered in committee and rejected to add enforcement language. What Wilson also knew was that there ARE enforcement procedures in place requiring proof of citizenship for many other federal programs and that these procedures would likely get added to any bill that was signed.
As an elected representative, Mr. Wilson has access to many effective public and private methods to express his skepticism at the President’s comments. He is NOT a powerless individual whose only recourse is to disrupt a public meeting to express his views.
Finally, as an experienced and successful politician, Mr. Wilson’s claim of losing control of his emotions also does not ring true. Only those people who are masters at calculating the impact of their actions win statewide elections to national office. We live in a culture were every verbal slip or inappropriate emotional response is preserved and circulated. Only those who have cultivated the ability to control their emotions survive. Joe has spent eight years (four elections) in the House and 17 years in the state legislature. This was not a rookie mistake.
So maybe we can gain some insight by learning more about the man.
We know that he is from South Carolina. From his website, he is a military man dedicated to public service. He has four sons (all eagle scouts) who are following in his footsteps.
What you won’t find on the website is that he belonged to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. This was a fairly benign historical organization until the last five years or so when a more aggressive white supremacist faction took control. Mr. Wilson was one of only seven members of the SC senate who voted in 2000 to keep the original Confederate Flag flying over the SC state house. He then mounted a vigorous defense of the original flag and was quoted as saying, “the Confederate heritage is very honorable”.
He also denounced as a “smear” the claim that Senator Strom Thurmond fathered an African American daughter. Senator Thurmond later admitted his affair and his long warm relationship with his daughter.
So perhaps Joe Wilson is a racist and his outburst was an emotional reaction to being lectured by an African American who also happens to be the most powerful man in the country.
It’s also possible, as some have suggested, that Joe is part of the conservative backlash to a popular democratic president. FDR had his Father Coughlin. Truman had Joe McCarthy. JFK had the John Birch Society. Bill Clinton had Ken Starr and Newt.
He also could be part of the larger populist movement that gains momentum during any time of rapid change. Sometimes it is a conservative movement. Sometimes it is a liberal movement, but it seems to show up whenever the little guy feels the big guys have rigged the system. In it’s current incarnation, it is fear of government expansion at the expense of the little guy. You can also throw in a little of the reaction of the uneducated to the educated elite.
Finally, it could have been a very simple cynical political calculation. Disrupt the meeting and distract from what was billed as the biggest speech of President Obama’s career. It worked. Wilson became famous and talk about the disruption overwhelmed discussion about healthcare.
Joe Wilson may be some or all of these things. What he isn’t, however, is a victim.
His was a risky move, but it also has paid off handsomely. With a very simple statement, he has become a lightening rod for all of these groups. He has burst upon the national scene as a poster child for all sorts of conservative causes. His fund-raising has skyrocketed to the tune of several million dollars. Would you call the President a liar for several million dollars?
At the end of the day, it is never acceptable to disrupt a President’s speech in the manner that Joe Wilson did for the following reasons.
Such an outburst by any conservative politician in today’s political climate will advance that career. That makes it unethical behavior. Since you can’t determine if the act is sincere or cynical, the end result is the same – advancing your own career at the expense of the respect for the office of the President.
Elected officials have to be held to a higher ethical standard because of the trust that they accept from the public. So they not only have to avoid outright issues where they sell their office and influence for money/fame, but they also have to avoid the appearance of such conflicts of interest.
This situation is no different.
It is his responsibility to avoid situations where there is any question about the motivations for his actions. This is clearly one of those situations and as a result, it is right up there with Bill Clinton and George Bush as a big lie.