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Joe Wilson loses it

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Kathleen Parker
September 11, 2009
— South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson seems to have set a precedent Wednesday night when he called the president a liar during a joint session of Congress.

That’s the official word from House deputy historian Fred Beuttler, who says that though cheering and jeering between parties are commonplace, a single individual seldom steals the floor.


Yet, there was Wilson, red-faced and alone, jabbing the air with his index finger and shouting to Barack Obama, “You lie!!!”


As we say down South, “What in tarnation?”


Much of the post-Wilson harrumphing has focused not only on his outburst, for which he has apologized, but also generally on “heckling” by Republicans.


Where have these folks been during previous presidential addresses? Although heckling by individuals usually emanates from the public gallery, group histrionics are a time-honored tradition in American political theater. Without which, honestly, how many of us would make it to the end?


What’s more memorable: a president’s rehearsed assertions from the podium or a bunch of congressmen booing the leader of the free world?


Otherwise, jeers, eye-rolling and other expressions of disapproval are practically de rigueur for opposition leaders. The queen of disapproving glances isn’t Nancy Pelosi, who glared at Wilson, but Hillary Clinton, who listened to George W. Bush’s State of the Union addresses with the sort of expression one usually associates with sailing the Drake Passage.


And who can forget Sen. John McCain’s dozing through Bush’s 2007 State of the Union? Or Democrats booing and heckling Bush throughout his 2005 address? The list goes on.


This is not to excuse Wilson’s behavior, which caused him to become an overnight Twitter sensation. His offense sets a new low bar. But as a nation, we have entered a political era of uninhibited belligerence. The civility we insist that we prefer has been in short supply at town hall meetings, several of which Wilson conducted.


A review of his Twitter log during the August break reveals a busy slate of meetings with angry crowds—1,500 people in Beaufort, 1,000 in Hilton Head.


“People want insurance reform, not government takeover!” he tweeted.


Was Wilson, perhaps, still reeling from these overheated exchanges in the state once famously described as too small to be a nation, too large to be an insane asylum?


Hysteria is, after all, contagious.


Wilson’s apparent cognitive lapse reminded me of a favorite story around our house about my impeccably well-mannered husband as a college student. He was listening to his math teacher droning on about what to expect on an upcoming exam, thinking to himself: “Do we have to prove this s—-?”


After the bell rang, his classmates approached him with glee, saying, “We can’t believe you said that?!”


Said what? To my bewildered husband’s horror, he had uttered aloud his private thought—though, thankfully, beyond the professor’s hearing.


It happens.


And thus, we have a new addition to the list of proper nouns that have become verbs. To “Borking” and “Nifonging,” we may now add “Joewilsoning,” as in, “OMG, he Joewilsoned right in the middle of the sermon!”

Obviously, a comparison between the congressman and the college student begins and ends with both having said regrettable things. The congressman is held to a higher standard. But it’s hard to imagine that Wilson meant to say what he did. Taking him at his word, the outburst was spontaneous. And, according to witnesses, Wilson seemed to be shaken and left the chamber quickly at session’s end.


There’s no excusing a Joewilson, but the congressman’s continued pummeling seems overdrawn. The tut-tutting on TV has begun to sound like a drum corps. And heaven forbid pursed lips should go out of style.


No one is more surprised by Wilson’s implosion, meanwhile, than those who know him to be polite, humble and deferential. (Disclosure: A nephew works in his office.)


A former aide to Strom Thurmond, Wilson apparently acquired the late senator’s knack for constituent service. Few are quicker with a congratulatory letter or a note of sympathy. Wilson’s actions Wednesday, in other words, seem vastly out of character and, perhaps, evidence of what the ladies back home might call “a case of the nerves.”


Wilson’s psychoanalysis will have to fall to others, but further public persecution is unnecessary. Wilson’s opponent for re-election, a Marine captain and Iraqi War veteran, Rob Miller, reportedly has increased his coffers by $400,000 since Wilson’s one-man siege. Obama escaped the assault both unruffled and unscathed.


Though he may have stolen the show, Wilson may have lost his audience.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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