In Praise of Joe Wilson

The House voted 240-179 to punish presidential heckler Rep. Joe Wilson. But in Britain, his boorish behavior would be a cherished part of the political culture. Alex Massie on why American politicians are a bunch of wimps.

AP Photo

Far and away the most deplorable element of what we must now, presumably, call the Joe Wilson Affair is the fact that Rep. Wilson (R-SC) has felt the need to apologize for calling the president of the United States a liar during his speech on Wednesday night.

The second most deplorable aspect of this midget-size tempest was President Obama’s acceptance of Wilson’s apology. “We all make mistakes,” Obama said, adding that the congressman “apologized quickly and without equivocation. I am appreciative of that.”

Trivial though it may seem, this brouhaha highlights a great flaw in the American system: You elect a monarch.

Could anything be prissier than that?

The factual merits of Wilson’s cry of “You lie!” need not detain us, if only because it is an obvious truth that, sooner or later, all presidents speak less than the whole truth. Here was an opportunity for Obama to endorse the eternal value of the First Amendment; instead, he emphasized the idea that criticizing the president of the United States is, in the dread terms favored by puritans, killjoys, and charlatans everywhere, “inappropriate.”

Not that Obama was alone in considering this most minor rebellion a threat to the sweet decorum of the republic. The maiden aunts staffing The Associated Press’ Washington bureau clucked: “The nastiness of August reached from the nation’s town halls into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday as President Barack Obama tried to move his health-care plan forward.” If a two-word heckle passes the AP’s “Nastiness Threshold,” one wonders how the wire service would describe something truly monstrous.

Watch: Joe Wilson: 'I Will Not Be Muzzled'Samuel P. Jacobs: Meet Joe Wilson Trivial though it may seem, this brouhaha highlights a great flaw in the American system: You elect a monarch. In olden days and on the old continent, criticizing the monarch might limit your life chances. So too, alas, in the American capital today, as the arbiters of acceptable Washington indecency—that is, the Davids Broder and Gergen—decry your shortage of civility and surfeit of vulgarity.

The convention that Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of the President in His Presence elides the great difference known to every Briton—that between insulting the head of state and insulting the mere head of the executive branch of government.

Mark McKinnon: Send Joe Wilson HomeInsulting Queen Elizabeth is one thing; insulting Gordon Brown is practically an obligation. Disrespecting the former is an act of treason; disrespecting the latter and his office, a necessity: Every Wednesday, Brown must endure Prime Minister’s Questions, during which his enemies in Parliament grill him. Prime Minister’s Questions may not be the be all and end all, but it affords an opportunity for “telling truth to power” that does not exist in the regal American system.

America’s problem is that it has combined the head of state and the head of the executive branch into a single office, and it can no longer distinguish between the two roles. Obama’s health-care address was not given in his role as head of state. It was, rather, a political speech made by—pinch yourselves—a mere politician seeking to advance his own political agenda.

As such, there seems no compelling reason for supposing that it be listened to in respectful, forelock-tugging silence. Silly Joe Wilson for forgetting that.

For all that the office of the presidency has been glorified to be over these past 10 decades, it remains the case that no president is infallible, and nor should he presume that he only preaches to a flock of obedient true believers.

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Watch 7 Outrageous Political Outbursts It is sometimes said that American politics would be well served by adopting some aspects of the more confrontational British style of debating. There’s something to be said for this, and not only because it would provide entertainment for Beltway journalists. As it is, the president may preach but the congregation is supposed to remain silent, even if the gospel is taken in vain. And if it is, then it’s terribly rude to say so.

More important, it might demand that the president lift his game. I am reminded of the story of the 18th-century radical John Wilkes, who was once heckled, “Vote for you? I’d sooner vote for the Devil,” to which he replied, “And what if your friend is not standing?”

Which, in its own way, is rather what President Obama should have said to Rep. Wilson.

Bravo, however, to Mr. Wilson for doing what he could to remind us all that the president is just a man.

Alex Massie is a former Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph. He writes for The Spectator and blogs at