Way to Go, Joe Wilson?

— This article by Jerry Cates, first published on 18 May 2010, was last revised on 1 June 2013. © Govinthenews Vol. 1:5(4).


“The (Wordsmith)… is at his best when he concentrates on questioning and clarifying and avoids the specialist’s obsession with solutions. He betrays society when he is silent or impenetrable or, worst of all, when he blithely reassures. He is true to himself and to the people when his clarity causes disquiet.” John Ralston Saul

One can argue that there comes a time when, in the course of public events, sitting still and saying nothing–in the presence of a public official who is misrepresenting critically important things–is not an option. At such times, our leaders should–no, must–speak out and call a spade a spade, or they fail to represent us. Was this one of those times? Well… let’s see…

During President Obama’s 9 September 2009 speech before a joint session of Congress, he asserted that, contrary to claims by his opponents, the healthcare reform bill now under consideration would not cover illegal immigrants. One must ask, first, how it matters that illegal immigrants might or might not be covered, but that is a subject for another discussion. For this discourse, we will focus on the veracity of President Obama’s claim.

According to some authorities, H. R. 3200 does not claim to cover illegal immigrants. Thus, using nothing but a literal analysis of the bill, one could assert that the president is right. However, those same authorities also point out that H.R. 3200 fails to provide safeguards that would prevent illegal immigrants from being covered. And many in the highest echelons of the Democrat party have expressed an interest in granting illegal immigrants all the rights and privileges of ordinary citizens. These are the most powerful members in Congress today. Thus it appears safe to presume that steps will be taken to successfully vest that group in all of this bill’s provisions as soon as H.R. 3200 is passed. As a practical matter, then, Obama was wrong. In fact, several members of Congress, including Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, have since described just how wrong he was. But, some will ask, did he know he was wrong? Beg Pardon, but that’s not a good question. With it on the table, we must next ask which is worse, bearing false witness, or being ignorant of the truth? Regardless of how one deals with that, our Chief Executive is painted as a fool. Let us not go down that road…

A better question is this: Why should any of us, as legislators or as American citizens on the street, have to ponder such distinctions while listening to our president’s address? Neither is acceptable in a Chief Executive who presumes to stand before America and deliver, for our consumption, what he claims are honest and true, straight-forward facts bereft of hidden agendas. Unfortunately, since taking office this man has demonstrated a lack of knowledge about other, equally crucial things (e.g., the motivations behind surgical recommendations made by practicing physicians), so ignorance cannot be ruled out. But, in this speech, everything we know indicates that–unless he is a mindless fool–he made a statement that was deliberately misleading and incorrect, along with a number of similar falsehoods and half-truths, while coloring his opponents, with a broad brush, as liars and purveyors of misinformation.

Yes, in this speech before Congress he did, in point of fact, call his opponents liars, and charged them with misrepresenting the facts. And he did that despite the unassailable fact that any reasonable analysis of this hopelessly flawed, supposed “healthcare reform” bill reveals that it is riddled with holes, holes that enable illegal immigrants to take full advantage of all its provisions, holes big enough to drive a figurative truck through. This mystifies me. Barack Obama campaigned that his approach to government would chart a new path of openness, transparency, and good will. Yet, in this speech to the nation he seemed delighted to take full advantage of the rhetoric of the past, using obfuscations and cloaked language to advance what many claim–with seeming justification–to be a hidden agenda. I could have embraced his message with enthusiasm had he behaved as he claimed he would during his campaign. But, alas, like his colleagues in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, the promises shouted out during a campaign drop by the wayside the moment an election is won. From all indications, despite the hopes of many that change was in the offing, Obama is cursed with the same feet of clay as everyone else.

Some will take umbrage at these words, but they are not set forth unadvisedly. To cite but one example, H.R. 3200 contains individual mandates forcing everyone on U.S. soil to have health insurance, and those mandates apply equally to legal and illegal residents without distinction, while providing streamlined sign-up methods that favor facility over scrutiny, the same way that voter registration schemes pushed by Democrats favor facility over scrutiny and, by that stratagem, enable ineligible voters to register not just once, but several times. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it is, because of the loose way such bills are written. Yet–speaking of H.R. 3200–if anyone wanted to make distinctions between these classes of residents crystal clear, making indisputable Obama’s assertion that the bill did not cover those not legally here, it would be a simple matter to amend the bill to exclude them. In fact, Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, offered such an amendment in July. However, Heller’s amendment was rejected by the Democrat majority, virtually guaranteeing that the bill would provide for illegal immigrant participation, regardless of Obama’s assertions to the contrary. Clearly, then, claiming that this bill does not cover illegal immigrants is untrue, both technically and literally. Yet, all the members of Congress sat mute as Obama’s words were being spoken. All, that is, but Joe Wilson, a fifth-term Republican representative from South Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District.

Joe Wilson is not a neophyte, by any measure. Oh, he’s younger than I am, but so are most people–except, of course, John McCain. Born in 1947, Wilson received a bachelor’s degree in 1969, graduated from law school in 1972, served in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1972-75, then served with the South Carolina Army National Guard until 2003 and retired with the rank of Colonel. In 1984 Wilson was elected to the South Carolina Senate, serving there with distinction for the next 17 years, during which time he never missed a statutory session. In 2001 he won a special election to fill the congressional seat vacated by the death of Floyd Spence, and has been reelected to that seat in each of the succeeding four elections.

While serving in his present congressional seat Joe Wilson has earned a reputation as an outspoken voice for conservatism. And, most recently–during President Barack Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Healthcare Reform–when the president stated what Wilson believed was untrue, he broke decorum and called out “You lie!” The president paused, and–behind him–Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi swiveled their heads in Joe Wilson’s direction, with stricken looks on their faces. After the speech, Senator John McCain called Wilson’s action “Totally disrespectful. No place for it in that setting or any other and he should apologize immediately.” That he did, calling the White House and speaking to Rahm Emanuel, who accepted Wilson’s apology.

Now, we must ask this question: Was what Wilson did truly wrong? It did break decorum, and as you may know, I speak out strongly against the woeful lack of decorum in our government today. You might conclude, therefore, that I would condemn Wilson’s actions. I might. Or, then again, I might not.

Newton’s third law of  motion tells us that for every action, nature produces an equal and opposite reaction. That physical law was formulated to explain the behavior of the inanimate world, but it applies to human behavior, and the case before us, as well. Whose behavior is most reprehensible? The elected public official who misrepresents his intentions to Congress and to the American citizenry, or the elected public official who senses the misrepresentation and its implications, becomes inflamed, and in a fit of uncontrolled emotion articulates his frustrations? Both are wrong, but one provoked the other. It is a matter of law that when one individual is provoked to action by another, the provocateur is guilty, and the one provoked innocent, unless the reaction of the latter is unreasonable. Wilson merely pointed, uttered a two-word accusation, then became silent. One could argue that–at least in this specific instance–his was the behavior of a reasonable individual. So who should apologize? The provocateur who boldly misrepresents the truth to Congress and America, or the elected public official in his presence who, in a fit of emotion, accuses him of it? And why did John McCain, as he castigated Wilson for his outburst, not also say “But, you know, the president didn’t tell the truth…“? Have we come to the place in American politics where bearing false witness is a lesser sin than a plain statement of fact uncovering it? I hope not, but maybe we have. That omission, in fact, makes Mr. McCain as guilty as the president–insofar as it abets in the perpetuation of his misrepresentation.

It could be argued, therefore, that John McCain owes Joe Wilson an apology. This aged creature–who, by the way, being only six years my senior, is a contemporary of mine, thus making me an aged creature as well–this decorous gentleman who boasts mightily of his ability to reach across the aisle might consider reaching out to those in the other aisle as well. No, not within his own party. John McCain may call himself whatever he likes, but he is no more a Republican than I am. Methinks his is a mugwump party of his own making, with him alone composing its membership.

It could also be argued, with equally forceful logic, that  Barack Obama owes Joe Wilson, the entire Congress, and every citizen of the United States an apology for standing before us, on that fateful night of 9 September 2009, and–once again–being less than honest with America. It seems as though he believes we are so dull, or so captivated by his eloquence and charm, that we either cannot tell the difference, or that we simply do not care. Worse, if you study his speech word for word, you will notice that it contains passages that are incredibly partisan, that–as mentioned earlier–in it he accuses his opponents of lying, and that he makes threats against his opponents if they persist in opposing his program. Every one of these tactics breaks decorum. Every one is an affront to the dignity of the Congress, at least as badly as Joe Wilson’s outburst but even more so because Obama’s tactics were premeditated while Wilson’s outburst was an involuntary reaction to a statement Obama made. There is no excuse for such behavior in an elected public servant. Is it necessary to remind Mr. Obama that, as Chief Executive of this great nation, he is–first and foremost–its servant? Evidently it is, and that troubles me greatly.

Last, I ask a question: Should we not be grateful that people such as Joe “I Will Not Be Muzzled” Wilson are willing to serve in our legislature? It could be said that he, or more particularly his actions (because, like every one of us, this meek, otherwise mild-mannered man is just another mortal with feet of clay), epitomize the best that our lawmakers can offer to their constituents. By those courageous actions, the truth–or perhaps, mostly, the lack thereof–was illuminated, not buried for the sake of decorum. Yes, decorum can work in a negative way, and when it does, it isn’t something to be cherished. It is instructive to note that a few days after Joe’s outburst the Congress agreed to work on changes to H.R. 3200 that will, they say, address the concerns he pointed out. If that isn’t an admission of the veracity of Wilson’s charge, nothing is. He may have used a crude way to obtain that admission, but he seems to have gotten results. And, like we say in Texas when the U.T. Longhorns eke out a football victory despite a series of embarrassing, amateurish plays, a win is still a win.

Along with that question comes another: Why was he the only one? Why didn’t others–including those who booed gently, murmured, or clucked their tongues as President Obama said his inflammatory words–have enough internal fire in their bellies to force them to point and shout the truth along with Joe?

But, saying all that, I have to add that we must continue to champion decorum with enthusiasm. Absolutely. Still, we have to recognize that some circumstances rise above that rule. It can be argued that this was one of those.

Do I have misgivings about Joe Wilson’s behavior? Indeed. It would have been more in keeping with decorum for Joe to have said “Not True!”, or “Untrue!” It is worthy of note that one year and eighteen days later, when President Obama–while presenting the State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress on January 26, 2010–castigated the U.S. Supreme Court for its decision on , Justice Samuel Alito registered his displeasure with the President by mouthing the words “Not true.” He got his point across, and though some were critical of even this mild show of dissent, it seems clear today, from the spirited debate that followed in the media and elsewhere, that he accomplished much more than that. Blatant partisanship has no place in a speech on the State of the Union, and Obama has now been forewarned against that practice in the future. Not that Alito will be present at such events in the future. He has lately indicated that, in keeping with the practices of a a number of other Supreme Court justices, he will no longer attend SOTU speeches.

Perhaps, had Joe used words similar to those used by Justice Alito, he would not have been castigated so strongly in the press. But he spoke in the heat of the moment, and–let’s be honest–“You Lie!” is a more genuine, and thus more believable, mark of spontaneity than Alito’s more genteel expression would have been. Beyond that, while Alito sat in front of the dais, certain to be noticed in every fidget, Joe was buried in a veritable sea of Republican colleagues, some distance away. Had he quietly mouthed his dissent, it might not have been noticed at all. That, methinks, would have been a great loss…


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