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Joe Wilson Harks Back to Tradition of Rowdy South Carolina Politics

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The nastiness of August reached from the town halls into the Capitol as President Barack Obama spoke about his health care plan. South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson shouted "You lie!" after Obama talked about illegal immigrants. Video by AP

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By Philip Rucker and Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 11, 2009

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) mastered politics in a state where no-holds-barred political combat dates to the days before the Civil War, when one of its congressmen entered the Senate chamber and beat a Massachusetts senator with a cane for attacking pro-slavery Southerners.

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So when Wilson went so far Wednesday night as to heckle President Obama, interrupting his address to a joint session of Congress with shouts of "You lie!" he wasn't straying far from South Carolina's tradition of wild and woolly politics. The outburst not only thrust the little-known congressman into the national spotlight; it also made him the latest in a legendary line of South Carolina politicians who appeared to revel in renegade behavior.

Wilson rejected pleas from his party's leaders to apologize on the House floor Thursday, telling reporters a call he placed to the White House after the speech had been sufficient. Democratic leaders, though stunned, said they were not inclined to pursue an official sanction against Wilson, and Obama accepted his apology. "I'm a big believer that we all make mistakes," the president said.

Still, Wilson became an overnight hero for conservatives by boldly channeling inside the sanctity of the Capitol the anger that so many activists loudly displayed at August town hall meetings over Obama's push for health-care reform. Interest in the formerly obscure backbencher overwhelmed his Web site and jammed his phone lines.

Sentiments ran just as strong on the other side, as Democrats made him a pariah. Former Marine Rob Miller, Wilson's likely opponent in 2010, collected more than $500,000 in new campaign contributions between the Wednesday outburst and Thursday afternoon, more than most challengers running in a heavily Republican district could expect to raise for an entire campaign.

Wilson's charge -- which fact-checkers have repeatedly established as false -- was that the universal-coverage provision Obama backs would extend care to illegal immigrants. Republican leaders did not dispute Wilson's claim but condemned him for the violation of decorum.

Wilson released a video on his campaign Web site Thursday night saying he "let my emotions get the best of me on the critical issue of health care. It was wrong."

Asking his supporters for donations, he added: "On these issues, I will not be muzzled. I will speak up, and speak loudly, against this risky plan."

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) called Wilson's behavior "inappropriate." Even so, Graham pledged to campaign for Wilson's reelection, saying the congressman should not be judged on one incident.

"People who know Joe Wilson like I do understand that that doesn't reflect the man," Graham said. "That was a mistake on his part from emotion about the issue, the consequences of where we're going as a nation."

Wilson's surprising moment drew renewed attention to the Palmetto State's history of colorful politics. Historians recall the state's then-Democratic Sen. Strom Thurmond wrestling Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D-Tex.) in 1964 over a civil rights nomination, and Rep. John W. Jenrette (D-S.C.) and his then-wife Rita having sex on the Capitol steps in the 1970s.

More recently, Sen. Jim DeMint (R) predicted that health care could be Obama's "Waterloo," and embattled Gov. Mark Sanford (R) rejected calls Thursday for his resignation from leaders of his party following his disappearance to Argentina to visit a mistress.


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