Democrats Need to Stop the Umbrage Game on Rep. Joe Wilson
Rep. Joe Wilson, the Republican from South Carolina who shouted "You lie" during President Obama's health-care address to Congress, has already apologized at least twice: once in a statement issued by his office and once in a phone call to the White House. He tried to reach the president and had to settle for Rahm Emanuel -- not, by all accounts, one of the more forgiving souls in politics. But some Democrats are not satisfied. They want Wilson to apologize on the House floor. Presumably this means during an official House session, and not actually while lying prostrate on the carpet. If he won't apologize on the floor, they want a resolution officially declaring that he's "it" or he has cooties -- or whatever the appropriate language is under House rules.
Why? Is it the suspicion that Wilson's apologies so far have not been sincere? Of course they're not sincere. Nor would be any future apologies he may issue, in any posture or location. After years of obscurity, this man is having the time of his life, relishing his newfound celebrity and raking in the campaign contributions, too. The more times he is required to write "I will not call the President a liar" on a special blackboard set up in the well of the House, the bigger hero he will become to a large chunk of the population. And, of course, forcing him to grovel will not help to convince him or his supporters that the president is not a liar.
Apparently, though, it is against House rules for a representative to call the president a liar during an official session of the House, even if you sincerely think he is one. Or, for that matter, even if he really is one -- as all of them are, on occasion. The purpose of this rule is to attempt to enforce a level of civility in the political debate. The result, though, is just the opposite: It is simply another opportunity for a fusillade in the Umbrage Wars. No matter how important or otherwise the underlying issue may be, it seems that about three-quarters of American politics can now be distilled down to "How dare you say that!" Taking offense at someone else's possibly over-vigorous exercise of free speech, demanding an apology and so on has replaced much serious discussion about, oh, health care, the financial crisis, Iraq, Afghanistan, stuff like that. Umbrage is so much easier: You can do it in your sleep, or on talk radio.
Umbrage is itself, generally, a lie. The ostensible victim of the offensive remark (call him or her the "umbragee") is actually delighted at the opportunity, while the ostensible offense giver (call him or her the "umbragor") is sorry to have wandered into this thicket, or is made to feel sorry as the umbrage game plays itself out. The rules of the game are perverse but simple: I scream with pain until you cry "uncle."
Wilson is obviously a bozo. (I can say this because I'm not on the House floor.) But all the attention is making him more popular within his own constituency, not less so. Why can't the Democrats be the class act here and just drop it? Sticks and stones, and all that.