Other Presidents Had Their Hecklers, Too

Sunday, September 13, 2009

"No president has ever had that happen," said White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel Wednesday evening, rising to President Obama's defense after Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) interrupted his speech before a joint session of Congress with a shout of "You lie!" · While the Wilson incident may have marked new, distracting heights on Capitol Hill, at least it wasn't a shoe. A look back at what other presidents have weathered, in the Capitol and on the road:

On Dec. 6, 1916, The Washington Post reported this kerfuffle during a speech by Woodrow Wilson:

Woman suffrage in its militant form showed itself at the Capitol yesterday afternoon when the attempt was made to interrupt the President in the reading of his address to Congress by flinging from the gallery a vivid yellow banner inscribed in great black letters: "President Wilson, what will you do for woman suffrage?"

Harry S. Truman couldn't catch a break, not even while enjoying the great American pastime. As The Post reported on April 21, 1951, shortly after Truman dismissed the hugely popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur:

President Truman drew a cool greeting and two outbursts of boos yesterday, but that did not seem to dim his enjoyment of the baseball season's delayed "opening game" at Griffith Stadium. . . . The Air Force Band struck up "Ruffles and Flourishes," followed by "Hail to the Chief," drowning out the spectators' comments.

Some presidents -- or future presidents -- choose to fight back. As the New York Times reported on Oct. 30, 1954:

Vice President Richard M. Nixon, visibly angry, tonight held his audience overtime to deliver a tongue lashing to an unidentified heckler. . . . The Vice President concluded his impromptu address by telling the doorman: "O.K., boys. Throw him out."

There's also the moral high ground, which Vice President Gerald Ford tried to stake out in 1974 during a commencement address at the University of Michigan, his alma mater. Here he is, as reported in the Times, responding to signs proclaiming that "Jerry Ford is a neofascist":

"Those exuberant signs, actually a safe form of telegenic streaking for those who have nothing to do but expose their minds, add to the excitement of this homecoming."

And then there's rising above the fray, Gipper-style. The Post reported on Oct. 24, 1984:

Against the backdrop of Reagan's standard stump speech celebrating optimism and prosperity, hecklers shouted epithets. "Liar, liar, pants on fire!" was one. . . . When the heckling persisted, Reagan joked, "You know, I know I'm no concert baritone, so I know those can't be an echo in my voice."

Even Obama's hero, Abraham Lincoln, was heckled. As historian Garry Wills has recounted, Lincoln once told an unruly crowd that he didn't like speaking off the cuff because "in my position, it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish thing." To which a heckler shot back: "If you can help it." The president was quick on his feet: "It very often happens," he said, "that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all."

But the next night, Lincoln said a few words the world would long remember. That crowd had gathered for the dedication of a cemetery in Gettysburg.

-- Emily Langer

© 2009 The Washington Post Company