With two angry words, Joe Wilson vaulted from political oblivion into the history books Wednesday night, when he lashed out at President Barack Obama during his health-care address to a joint session of Congress, exclaiming “You lie!” It wasn’t the first time Wilson had blown up during political combat—and, despite the recriminations from his Republican brethren, it likely won’t be the last.
His guiding philosophy, as expressed to his home-state newspaper in October 2001: “Other people's views would be that you try to avoid controversy. I have not tried to avoid controversy. I've tried to do what I think is right."
In September 2002, Wilson was captured on C-SPAN, laying into Bob Filner, a Democratic representative from California, for his opposition to invading Iraq. “This hatred of America by some people is just outrageous,” Wilson said. “And you need to get over that.”
The question is, was it right for the right wing? Overnight, Democrats raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Wilson’s opponent in South Carolina. Conservatives lost little time mounting a counteroffensive. RedState.com, a popular blog on the right, asked readers “What have you given to Joe Wilson? The man spoke for America. And now we need to open our wallets for Joe.” Some conservatives upbraided him. As The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg wrote: “Whether he was accurate when he shouted "You lie!" or not isn't the issue. There are times to say the president isn't telling the truth—and he wasn't quite often last night —but that wasn't one of them.” But others rallied around him. “It was Obama who said himself in the speech: ‘If you misrepresent what’s in the plan, we will call you out,’ wrote Michelle Malkin. “That’s what Joe Wilson was doing, wasn’t it?
• Max Blumenthal: 18 Outrageous Conservative QuotesGiven the level of anger in the right wing’s ranks, it would not be too surprising to see Wilson suddenly become a cult hero for the health-care town-hall set.
“You lie” threatened to overshadow the most polished applause lines of Obama’s speech. Uttered in response to the president’s assertion that his plan would not, in fact, provide health care for illegal immigrants, the words drew the wrath of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, awkward rebukes from Wilson’s GOP colleagues—and a note of personal apology from the congressman to the White House before the night was out.
• Mark McKinnon: Send Joe Wilson HomeOnly a few years ago, Wilson was seen as a rising star. He was a favorite of the Republican establishment during Bush’s first term. According to The State, South Carolina’s paper of record, he appeared on more national radio and television programs than any other Republican in the House in 2003. The paper dubbed him “King of All Media,” and he crowed that he had learned his gift of speech from “masters of soundbites.” “You lie,” his response to Obama’s assertion that the president’s plan would not provide health care to illegal immigrants, ranks right up there, even if uttering it did force him to apologize to the White House and triggered talk of a possible censure.
Wilson had been in Washington just three years when he was tapped to lead the House Majority Trust, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s most important donor group, in 2004. Wilson accompanied President George W. Bush on Air Force One when he visited the Palmetto State to fill Republican coffers in 2005. Wilson remained a steadfast supporter of the president and the Iraq War. ("I know the public perception is that we're a bunch of robots," Wilson told The State, referring to criticism that he and others were following Bush unthinkingly.)
Wilson’s Wednesday night outburst wasn’t just characteristic for him; it also fit neatly into a centuries-long tradition of outsized behavior by South Carolina’s representatives on Capitol Hill. The heat of the Antebellum period reached one of its notorious high points when South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner with a cane in the Senate chamber. South Carolinians celebrated the pounding by sending Brooks new canes, with one bearing the inscription, “Hit him again.”
The last century’s low moment came when Storm Thurmond led a 24-hour filibuster against the Civil Rights Bill in 1957. Upon Thurmond’s death, Wilson, who got his start in politics as a page for the senator, and regards himself as a Thurmond protégé, declared the longest serving senator in American history, his “personal hero.”
• Alex Massie: In Praise of Joe Wilson Considering this history, Wilson’s yell was rather tame. In fact, it might not rate as the most memorable of the summer in his state. That honor probably belongs to the meandering press conference held by another former Strom Thurmond intern, Gov. Mark Sanford. It’s worth noting that Stanford also has tough competition from South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who claimed that health care would be Obama’s Waterloo. Wilson’s hothead tendencies showed up shortly after he arrived in the nation’s capital. In September 2002, he was captured on C-SPAN, laying into Bob Filner, a Democrat representative from California, for his opposition to invading Iraq.
"This hatred of America by some people is just outrageous,” Wilson said. “And you need to get over that."
The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, then at The Washington Post, reported the rest of the conversation:
Filner challenged: "Hatred of America? . . . Are you accusing me?"
"Yes!" Wilson shouted. For good measure, over the next minute Wilson accused Filner of harboring "hatred of America" four more times, of being "hateful" three times and of being "viscerally anti-American" once.
Back in 2003, when many greeted the news that Strom Thurmond fathered an illegitimate black daughter with a shrug—rumors had gone around local political circles for years—Wilson said he doubted the story.
"It's a smear on the image that [Thurmond] has as a person of high integrity who has been so loyal to the people of South Carolina," Wilson told The State.
“Some attacks on the dead are simply tawdry,” he wrote in a letter to the paper.
A year later, Wilson lashed out at Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, during the presidential campaign, saying on the House floor, "Mr. Speaker, 33 years ago today, John Kerry appeared before the Senate to talk about Vietnam. Many veterans, including myself as a veteran, view John Kerry's testimony that day as one of the worst public slanders ever against the valor and character of the American military." The hypocrisy police came out in full force: Wilson himself took a student deferment when his number came up in the draft in 1969. (He has served in the South Carolina National Guard for decades and is one of a handful of congressmen to have children fighting in Iraq.)
He also found himself entangled in a controversy involving another man named Joe Wilson, this one a former ambassador who hit the headlines in 2003 for going after President Bush and claims he had made in an address to Congress in the runup to the Iraq War. The recently deceased Robert Novak outed that Wilson’s wife as a CIA agent in the now-notorious Valerie Plame affair. Rep. Wilson told Roll Call that criticism of the other Joe Wilson led to phone calls flooding his office, from constituents confused about why their representative had lost the White House’s favor. Voters in his district were surprised to hear Dick Cheney on Meet the Press, declaring, “I do not know Joe Wilson. I never met Joe Wilson.”
Wilson’s career was born amid questions of his sense of political propriety. When his mentor Floyd Spence died in August 2001, Wilson waited only a matter of days before placing billboards up announcing his candidacy.
"They could wait a week," a South Carolinian Democratic leader said then. "What's a week going to be?"
Upon election to his seat in 2001, Wilson explained his political philosophy was one of thoughtfulness and reason. He told The State in an interview, "I hope that people understand that when I take a position, it's actually a thoughtful position; it's not a knee-jerk position, and it's based on the facts as I know them. That's the type of congressman I'd like to be."
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.