An Extreme Oral Tradition

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009

At least Joe Wilson didn't slice President Obama's sausage.

That's what happened last year to Italy's then-Prime Minister Romano Prodi when two members of an opposing party started scarfing slices of mortadella -- a sausage from Prodi's home town of Bologna -- in the Senate chamber to mock the embattled leader.

"This isn't a tavern here!" shouted the Senate president, banging his gavel and ordering guards to remove the legislators.

And really, the South Carolina Republican's outburst of "You lie" would not be shocking in many other countries.

"Rubbish!" and "Nonsense!" are hurled routinely at the British prime minister in the often-raucous House of Commons. People boo, shout "Resign!" and do everything short of tossing whoopie pies when he shows up for his weekly ritual grilling during Prime Minister's Questions.

What Wilson did during Obama's speech Wednesday offended many in Washington who said they couldn't remember a more ill-mannered outburst. But Obama should count himself lucky that he doesn't have to address some European, Latin American or Asian legislatures. Wilson's comment "is mild compared to throwing objects, fistfights and screaming, the wearing of pig faces," all of which has happened in the Mexican legislature, said George Grayson, a Latin America specialist at the College of William and Mary. In fact, Mexican President Felipe Calderón decided this month to give a speech not in the legislature but in his own office, surrounded by police and soldiers.

In Japan and South Korea, antagonism among parties has been so nasty that lawmakers have come to physical blows. In 2007, a South Korean lawmaker was carried out of parliament on a stretcher after a scuffle. When members of one party shoved sofas and stringing up chains to block the speaker's podium, rivals fought back with no less than a chain saw.

Joschka Fischer, a German Green Party member, used a phrase in 1984 to address a leader of parliament -- a phrase often invoked: "With respect, Mr. President, you are an asshole."

The outburst didn't hurt his career. He went on to become foreign minister.

Piotr Kaczynski, research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, said what is acceptable varies: "In some countries if you offend the head of state, it is seen as an offense against the state."

In Poland, it is against the law to "publicly defame" the president. Last year, when a lawmaker called President Lech Kaczynski a "lout" on TV, a prosecutor was called in to determine whether he had broken the law. Even though the case was eventually dropped, it was seen as a serious breach.

Even in Britain, there are limits on what can be said. It might be fine to drown out, interrupt and yell "Shame!" at the prime minister, but swearing is not allowed. Calling the prime minister "a liar" would likely cross the line because one must not "cast doubt on their honor," said Peter Riddell, chief political correspondent for the Times of London and an author of political books.

Riddell also noted that the prime minister is not the head of state. Queen Elizabeth II is. When she speaks, Riddell said, "it is absolutely accepted that her speech should be heard in silence."

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