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Oh, Mr. Wilson . . .

A Lawmaker Loses It in More Than One Sense

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Thursday. (By Harry Hamburg -- Associated Press)
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Friday, September 11, 2009

South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson seems to have set a precedent Wednesday night when he called the president a liar during a joint session of Congress.

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That's the official word from House Deputy Historian Fred Beuttler, who says that though cheering and jeering between parties are commonplace, a single individual seldom steals the floor.

Yet, there was Wilson, red-faced and alone, jabbing the air with his index finger and shouting to Barack Obama, "You lie!"

As we say down South, "What in tarnation?"

Much of the post-Wilson harrumphing has focused not only on his outburst, for which he has apologized, but also generally on "heckling" by Republicans.

Where have these folks been during previous presidential addresses? Although heckling by individuals usually emanates from the public gallery, group histrionics are a time-honored tradition in American political theater. Without which, honestly, how many of us would make it to the end?

What's more memorable: a president's rehearsed assertions from the podium or a bunch of congressmen booing the leader of the free world?

Otherwise, jeers, eye-rolling and further expressions of disapproval are practically de rigueur for opposition leaders. The queen of disapproving glances isn't Nancy Pelosi, who glared at Wilson, but Hillary Clinton, who listened to George W. Bush's State of the Union addresses with the sort of expression one usually associates with sailing the Drake Passage.

And who can forget Sen. John McCain's dozing through Bush's 2007 State of the Union? Or Democrats booing and heckling Bush throughout his 2005 address? The list goes on.

This is not to excuse Wilson's behavior, which caused him to become an overnight Twitter sensation. His offense sets a new low bar. But as a nation, we have entered a political era of uninhibited belligerence. The civility we insist that we prefer has been in short supply at town hall meetings, several of which Wilson conducted.

A review of his Twitter log during the August break reveals a busy slate of meetings with angry crowds -- 1,500 people in Beaufort, 1,000 in Hilton Head.

"People want insurance reform, not government takeover!" he tweeted.

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