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Hard to Say He's Sorry

By Dana Milbank
Friday, September 11, 2009

John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, showed up half an hour late for his weekly news conference on Thursday, but he had a good excuse: He had been trying to persuade Joe Wilson to apologize on the floor of the House for shouting "You lie!" at President Obama during his address to Congress.

Democratic leaders even delayed a vote to give Boehner time to sway his colleague, but it was a fool's errand. Wilson, in truth, just wasn't that sorry.

"I did have a conversation with Mr. Wilson," Boehner told the reporters, not denying that he had tried to elicit a public apology. "I'm not going to relay the contents of my private conversation with him."

"Are you disappointed he won't apologize on the House floor?"

"You'll have to talk to him," Boehner said sourly.

Reporters and camera operators, staking out Wilson's office since 6:30 a.m., finally did talk to the Republican from South Carolina when he left for a vote just before noon. He made it clear that even the apology he gave to the White House on Wednesday night was ordered by party leaders. "Well, I, uh, last night I heard from the leadership that they wanted me to contact the White House and, uh, say that, uh, my statements, uh, were inappropriate," he said in a soft drawl. "I did."

So much for contrition. And that points to a larger predicament for the GOP, which is now riding the tiger of public anger toward the Democrats' health-care proposals. The party relies on that anger to rebuild its power -- and yet embracing the raw anger of the town hall meetings, as several lawmakers did Wednesday night, risks making the Republicans look like hooligans.

Boehner, while disavowing the timing of Wilson's outburst, very much endorsed the sentiment. "Don't underestimate the amount of emotion that people are feeling," he counseled at his news conference. "Americans are frustrated, they're angry, and, most importantly, they're scared to death." Four times, Boehner labeled the shouting "inappropriate," even as he backed the substance behind Wilson's outburst and held up a report that he said supported Wilson's position.

Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Senate Republican, on Wednesday night had called Obama's speech to Congress "disingenuous" and "Chicago-style politics." Given the opportunity to temper those remarks at a news conference Thursday, Kyl declined. "If it's harsh for me to criticize him for doing that -- and it may certainly seem that way -- I think it's honest," he said.

While Wilson kept a low profile Thursday morning, well-wishers such as antiabortion activist Randall Terry and some anti-tax "tea party" activists stopped by his office to voice their support. When he finally emerged, Wilson elaborated on the issue that caused his outburst. "The Congressional Research Service has indicated that, indeed, the bills that are before Congress would include illegal aliens, and I think this is wrong," he said. (Actually, the report says illegal immigrants would not be prohibited from enrolling in a health-insurance exchange but "would be barred" from receiving subsidies.)

His aides were nervous. "Gotta go -- we gotta go," one urged.

Wilson was also equivocal on his campaign Web site, where he posted a fundraiser saying that he shouldn't have disrespected the president, "but I am not sorry for fighting back against the dangerous policies of liberal Democrats."

Democrats contemplated a move to sanction Wilson for his explosion but then reconsidered, figuring Republicans were doing themselves enough damage without Democratic help. "It's time for us to talk about health care and not Mr. Wilson," a cheerful House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at her weekly news conference.

Still, she found time to announce that "the parliamentarian passed me a piece of paper that said what the options were" for punishing Wilson.

She also mentioned that it "was stunning to hear such a statement made on the floor of the House when the president of the United States is speaking."

Pelosi waved her hands dismissively. "But let's not spend time on that," she said. She waited until the cameras were off to give reporters a more candid view: "I think it shows the bankruptcy of their ideas," she said.

Wilson skipped a planned appearance at an afternoon rally across from the Capitol by the conservative group FreedomWorks, but he had already gained hero status among the attendees. "We agree with him -- Obama's a liar," said Carole Holland, from Florida, wearing paper ornaments over her ears that said "Obama [bovine excrement] Reflector."

Nearby, LaRouchies displayed a large poster of Obama with a Hitler mustache. Several GOP lawmakers, including Boehner, were on the stage. "Last night, we heard our president address our country," said Eric Cantor (Va.), the House Republican whip. There was a chorus of boos. A woman shouted out, "Liar, liar, pants on fire."

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), leader of House conservatives, invoked Samuel Adams: "It doesn't take a majority to prevail, but an irate and tireless minority keen on setting brush fires of freedom in the minds of men. Thank you so much for setting those brush fires."

Dick Armey, the former House leader who organized the rally, added his own patriot: "Patrick Henry said, 'Give me liberty or give me death.' Well, Barack Obama is trying to make good on that."

Approached by a reporter after the speeches, Armey said that what Wilson did was no worse than what Obama did in calling the death-panel myth "a lie, plain and simple." Wilson's fault, Armey said, was that "he should not have expressed himself so clearly and openly as he did."

"I mean, give ol' Joe Wilson a break here," Armey said. For an opposition party trying to harness public furor, it was the only option.

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