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.
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.
"Mark Sanford, Jim DeMint and Joe Wilson. Boy, that's a trinity isn't it?" said Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and longtime resident. "South Carolina is filled with crazy [expletive], excuse my French."
To be sure, South Carolina Democrats have had their brushes, too. During 39 years in the Senate, Democrat Fritz Hollings infamously spoke derogatively of just about every ethnic group. When Hollings lost a 1983 presidential straw poll in Iowa, he reportedly said: "Well, that [Walter] Mondale imported a lot of them wetbacks across the Mississippi River."
Fowler, who teaches politics at the University of South Carolina, concluded: "I think it is something in the water."
It was in these waters that Wilson, 62, got his first taste of politics. At age 11, Addison Graves "Joe" Wilson was a "pop runner," delivering soda pop to election workers in Charleston. He became an activist with anti-communist causes in high school and while working as a counselor at a camp for Republican teenagers, Wilson met Roxanne, the camper who would become his wife.
A former aide to Thurmond, who became a Republican late in 1964, Wilson spent nearly two decades in the state Senate before winning a special election in 2001 to succeed another former boss, Rep. Floyd Spence (R-S.C.), who died in office. Wilson once boasted that Spence called him from his hospital bed as he lay dying and urged him to run for his seat.
Wilson, a former colonel in the Army National Guard who has four sons who have served in the military, is a conservative hawk. Graham predicted that Wilson would be "one of the president's chief supporters if he decides to add more troops in Afghanistan."
But during four terms, Wilson has had no signature legislation, and colleagues said he focuses more on constituent services than policy.
Across South Carolina's 2nd District, which stretches from the capital of Columbia through the Low Country to the resort island of Hilton Head, he has cultivated a reputation as being unusually attentive to voters. "When it comes to politicking, there's no church he won't help," Graham said. "Joe is a conservative Republican who goes to every event where three people are gathered."
Carol Fowler, Don Fowler's wife and the chairman of the state Democratic Party, accused Wilson of having "never been a person who's done substantive things."
"He has never introduced or gotten passed any kind of legislation of any substance on health care or education or the environment," Fowler said. "His idea of being a congressman is to hand out key chains with his name on it to everybody he sees, which is what Strom Thurmond used to do."
Wilson, who has harbored ambitions for statewide office, has a history of lashing out and later apologizing.
In 2002, during a C-SPAN discussion about Iraq's capabilities for nuclear and biological weapons, Wilson attacked Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) as harboring "hatred of America" at least four times when Filner suggested Saddam Hussein may have obtained some technologies from the United States.
In 2003, when The Washington Post persuaded Essie Mae Washington-Williams to publicly identify herself as the biracial daughter of Thurmond, who once had been an avowed segregationist, Wilson accused the woman of trying to "smear" the senator, who had died six months earlier. "It's a smear on the image that [Thurmond] has as a person of high integrity who has been so loyal to the people of South Carolina," Wilson said.
When the Thurmond family acknowledged that Washington-Williams was indeed Thurmond's daughter, Wilson apologized but did not back down from his assertion that she should have kept quiet.
In Washington, Wilson is known for covering his office walls with framed photos of Republicans and for filling cabinets with elephant figurines and busts of such politicians as Thomas Jefferson and Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek.
Wilson revels in the pomp of Capitol Hill, once telling the State, a Columbia newspaper, that every day is "like Christmas."
"I love parliamentary maneuvering!" he was quoted as saying. "I love the trees! . . . I love this view!"
But some colleagues see behind his easy manner a confrontational streak. "There are people who tend to look at him as this choirboy," said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), whose district borders Wilson's. "He is really everything but that."
Last month, Wilson organized a town hall meeting at Columbia's Keenan High School -- in Clyburn's district. "He came into my district, the high school where my kids went, where I was an officer in the [Parent Teacher Association], and that was on purpose," Clyburn said. "That was as unethical as one can be, and he didn't say one word to me about it."
Staff writers Paul Kane and Perry Bacon Jr. and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.