WASHINGTON – Earlier this week, Joe Wilson was just another relatively obscure Republican congressman.
By Thursday, the South Carolina politician had become a cause celebre thanks to two words shouted angrily at Barack Obama during the president’s address to Congress: “You lie!”
For Canadians accustomed to the bare-knuckled verbal brawling that goes on during Question Period, including by the prime minister, the continuing fallout from Wilson’s outburst might seem puzzling.
But since 1952, an American president has called together a joint session of Congress to address a major national issue only 15 times. Rarely, if ever, has a president been heckled.
While Democrats booed and cried “no” during two of George W. Bush’s congressional addresses – in 2004 and 2005 – Wilson’s shouted allegation that Obama was lying about health-care reform was seen as something particularly egregious.
His startling breach of congressional decorum, in fact, has angered Republicans and Democrats alike.
Democrats called his conduct a disgrace, as did some prominent Republicans.
“I’ve been here for 35 years. I’ve been here for seven presidents. I’ve never heard anything like that,” said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.
Arizona Senator John McCain called it “totally disrespectful.”
“There is no place for it in that setting, or any other, and he should apologize for it immediately,” he said.
The Republican party was discussing Thursday whether to censure Wilson, who did in fact apologize for his outburst to White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel late Wednesday night.
Obama, for his part, said he accepted Wilson’s apology.
“Yes, I do; he apologized quickly,” the president said Thursday.
“I do think that, as I said last night, we have to get to the point where we can have a conversation about big important issues that matter to the American people without vitriol. I hope that some of the fever breaks a little bit.”
Wilson’s apology, however, did little to stem the outrage in a nation that has seen political discourse deteriorate dramatically this summer amid the health-care reform debate.
The five-term congressman, and onetime protege of Strom Thurmond, has become an Internet sensation as his name and topics related to him were among the top searches on Google on Thursday. He was also the top trending topic on Twitter.
The Twitter and Facebook reaction to his outburst was swift and ruthless.
Wilson’s Wikipedia page was locked Wednesday night after repeated attempts to vandalize it, and his website went offline as countless Twitter and Facebook users posted its URL and the politician’s office phone number in their status updates.
Some also provided information about Rob Miller, an Iraq war veteran who is Wilson’s political rival in the next mid-term election. By mid-Thursday, Miller’s campaign coffers were US$123,000 richer and still swelling.
The website “Joe Wilson Is Your Pre-Existing Condition” popped up almost immediately. It featured new Wilson insults with every click of the refresh button, including “Joe Wilson yells ‘Freebird’ at concerts” and “Joe Wilson laid off your dad just before his pension kicked in.”
Some speculated Wilson’s outburst gives Obama the moral high ground after a summer of raucous town hall battles over his health-care reform plans that left both Democrats and Republicans bruised and battered.
“It strengthens the president, because it demonstrates what he is facing. Most people have respect for the president,” Leahy said.
Andisheh Nouraee, a columnist for an alternative weekly in Atlanta, Ga., said Wilson has handed the Democrats a gift by spouting off.
“If he’s the face of the GOP, we’ll have public option by Columbus Day,” she said.
A nervous, breathless Miller met with reporters on Thursday, saying he was grateful the White House accepted his apology but reiterating his concerns that Obama’s health-care overhaul would give illegal aliens free health care.
“I think this is wrong,” Miller said on Capitol Hill.
“I am for legal immigration, I’ve been an immigration attorney, but people who have come to our country and violated laws … we should not be providing full health-care services.”