Thank You, Joe Wilson

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Mr. Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007).

Joe Wilson did the whole country a service last week. By calling President Obama a liar at a formal joint session of Congress, and in front of millions of viewers, he provided the clearest possible evidence for what Obama had just said, that his opponents had created a “partisan spectacle” by employing “scare tactics” in order “to score short-term political points.” He decried the low level of political discussion that has been employed by Republican leaders and elected officials. While most congressional Republicans sat on their hands and scowled at his criticism, Wilson demonstrated its truth for the world to see and hear. Congressional historians are digging into their files to find out exactly how historic Wilson’s interjection was, but so far nobody can remember such an occurrence in Congress.

Wilson’s crudeness stands only one step beyond the concerted Republican campaign against Obama’s legitimacy to govern. One might argue that being called a liar is preferable to having your opponents claim you would advocate “pulling the plug on Grandma,” as many prominent Republicans in Congress have said about Obama. The effort to convince the American public that Obama’s plan includes “death panels”, which would push seniors into their graves, places our President in a league with mass murderers. This was taken to ridiculous lengths by a Republican National Committee “survey” which implied that the Democrats’ health care plan would deny medical treatment to Republicans. This was so silly that the RNC had to withdraw this language, but the implication is not funny: that Obama and the Democrats might be so murderous and vile that they would try to kill off Republicans.

This is the context for Wilson’s behavior, not an error, but merely an extension of the more general campaign to discredit Obama, Democrats, and the majority of American voters who voted for him. The red-baiting tactics that Republicans used so frequently in the 1950s and 1960s have been revived. But the subtext of Wilson’s eruption in the House is more sinister. In 2003 Wilson, a protegé of Strom Thurmond, criticized Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the daughter of the Thurmond family’s African-American maid, when she revealed that Thurmond was the father of her child. For Wilson this linkage of his “hero” with a black woman was “unseemly.” How much more unseemly that his President should be black.

The hope that the election of Obama might mean a page had been turned in the history of race relations in America has proven horribly wrong: just as they have for decades, the Republican southern strategy continues to use latent white racism to gain political leverage. A July opinion poll by Research 2000 showed that doubts about Obama’s Presidential legitimacy were concentrated among Southern whites, three-quarters of whom doubted the official account of Obama's birthplace.

Wilson made his infamous remark when Obama had just said that “prominent politicians” had told lies about the content of his health care proposals, notably the fiction about “death panels.” Wilson’s repeated claim that the Democratic plan would give coverage to illegal immigrants is itself a lie, one that has been repeatedly disproved by reference to the section of the House proposal that says, “Nothing in this subtitle shall allow federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully in the United States.” In fact, even legal immigrants would get only limited coverage. Wilson wants more efforts to insure that this provision is enforced than the Democrats favor, but that is a far different and much more technical matter.

Wilson has embarrassed Republican leaders, because he embodies the inevitable results of their dishonest campaign of lies and fear, directed not merely at health care reform, but targeted more directly at President Obama. When elected officials and national political leaders determine that they are going to bring down the recently elected President with every means at their disposal, we, the public, must gather our forces. The self-proclaimed patriots don’t like the nation’s democratic choices. They say they are defending American values, but in fact they are attacking Americans.

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Bryan Mullinax - 9/15/2009

Perhaps you forget that we remember the last 8 years. The spittle-flecked denunciations of BusHitler. The booing of the President by Democrats during the State of the Union show. The ongoing efforts to criminalize conservatism.

And we also learned that its just fine to throw shoes at the President - at least according to the acclaim given by "progressives".

So your little hissy-fits about decorum tend to ring rather hollow.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/15/2009

Wilson chose a good one, but there were several other lies in the same speech he might have flagged. My favorite is perhaps the whopper of them all, which says "if you like the health insurance you are getting now from your employer, nothing will change." That fib will create about 75 million enraged citizens, should Waxman's bill become law.

Tiger Cosmos - 9/14/2009

Calling the President of the US a liar in a joint session of congress, even if he had got the actual facts of the current bill wrong, is not only unprecedented - it provides another direct link between Republican Leadership to the actions of townhall hijacking screamers, the tea party, birthers, etc. No matter what one says of Demcratic leadership there is no connection of it's leadership to the left wing extremist. Pelosi was the target of the left wing for not pursuing the Bush impeachment.

Tiger Cosmos - 9/14/2009

The news dump and fact checking found the plan explicitly states no coverage to illegals. The only other honest and reality based discussion was law versus enforcement. Nothing to do with the facts of the speech.

Mark Reitz - 9/14/2009

Of course, in its Friday night news dump the Whitehouse is now acknowledging that Wilson was right about coverage for illegal aliens, and is now proposing a solution. As reported by MSNBC, "Today, for the first time as far as we know, the administration is backing a provision that would require proof of citizenship before someone could enroll in a plan selected on the exchange. Here, the administration also concedes that hospitals would be compensated with public funds for the care of undocumented immigrants."

At least we got that cleared up - Wilson was right!

As Wilson has already apologized for his outburst during the President's speech, we can now look forward to apologies from the Dems who booed President Bush during his State of the Union address.

Desmond X. Butler - 9/14/2009

How true! How appropriate!

M. R. Gundolf - 9/14/2009

"You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" Have the immortal words of Joseph N.Welch to Sen.Joe McCarthy been more apropos since 1954? I think not.