Joe Wilson’s War

In praise of indecorous debate

It may be an unpopular opinion, seeing as the rest of the world has piled onto Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina for heckling the president during his health care opus the other night, but I quite enjoyed Wilson’s outburst.

It was a glimpse of all those angry August town halls and the combative crowds Obama managed to avoid, come home to roost in the hallowed chambers of Congress. And how about that “I’m going to ground you for life” glare that Speaker Pelosi shot in the general direction of the Republicans when Wilson blurted out “You lie!” in response to Obama’s declaration that his health care plan would not cover illegal immigrants? That was great stuff.

But the outburst was noteworthy for more than just its entertainment value. Wilson’s spontaneous shout was the equivalent of pulling the needle off a record player with a loud screech. It threw the whole telepromptered script off track—and when it comes to political talking points, I’m all for anything that gets a politician off-message, even if only for a second.

Of course, No Drama Obama barely acknowledged Wilson’s outburst, and it’s too bad. Wilson offered him the perfect opportunity to dispel rumors about his health care vision and set the record straight once and for all, which was the purported reason for the speech to begin with. But Obama missed his chance in that moment, responding meekly with, “That’s not true.”

As CJR’s Megan Garber elegantly argues, the press shouldn’t glom onto Wilson’s outburst as another in a string of “Scandal-Gates.” But they shouldn’t ignore it, either. Instead, they should use it, as the AP did here, as a jumping-off point to conduct a real debate about health care, the way President Obama could have when Wilson so indecorously shouted out of turn.

A little less decorum might not be such a bad thing, after all. Certainly Wilson’s presidential heckle didn’t approach other legislative brouhahas, such as Charles Sumner’s 1856 caning attack at the hands of Preston Brooks, or the Taiwanese legislature’s 2007 slap-fight. And it didn’t even include profanity, unlike Dick Cheney’s Senate-floor F-bomb directive to Patrick Leahy in 2004.

The whole Wilson/Obama exchange, as many have noted in its aftermath, was reminiscent of the often heated, blood-pressure-ratcheting, but always cleverly phrased Prime Minister’s Questions—a raucous conversation conducted weekly between the British prime minister and members of Parliament.

The British know how to argue with eloquence. (Check out former Speaker David Cameron dishing it out to Prime Minister Gordon Brown—and Brown dishing it right back.) That sort of back-and-forth can be healthy. So was the problem really Wilson’s lapse of decorum? Or his ham-handed choice of words?

Of course, even the Brits know that spontaneous debate can also get out of hand, bordering on the ridiculous (as Saturday Night Live figured out years ago). Brown himself—though, of course, he may have a vested interest in the matter—has questioned the necessity of Question Time, declaring its hostile tones a “turn-off” to voters. And just before Parliament left for their summer vacation this year, the new Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, said he wants to clamp down on the weekly exchange.

“The Punch and Judy show is boring, extremely abrasive and is now a contributory factor to the contempt bordering on opprobrium in which we are now held,” Bercow said.

Certainly there is a middle ground. But, here in the States, there seems to be good behavior and a quiet corner—and little in between. To wit: Sen. Arlen Specter is calling for Wilson to be punished for his outburst, saying, “But there ought to be some rebuke, reprimand, censure—something that will discourage that kind of conduct in the future. If you do that to the President, it’s open season.”

Open season. You mean that the president should be given a chance to smack down false claims and defend his plan in an honest debate? Sounds good to me.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.