10 September 2009

The Heckler

If I looked into it more, I would probably despise everything that Rep. Joe Wilson stands for. He's the Republican congressman from South Carolina who scandalized the national legislature by calling the President a liar from the floor in the middle of an address of health care reform. He quickly apologized under strong pressure from fellow Republicans, confessing that his emotions got the better of him. People who support President Obama will be inclined to condemn Wilson, but as this British blogger for Newsweek notes, Americans have far less tolerance for legislative heckling than other free nations. Those eager to censure Wilson or do worse to him might recall how cowardly they thought George W. Bush was when he refused to address the British parliament out of fear of heckling. The blogger finds Americans to be too deferential toward their Presidents compared to British treatment of the Prime Minister. While acknowledging that the President is head of state as well as head of government, he doesn't think that fact should shield the Chief Executive from accountability to the legislature. In Britain, the Prime Minister submits to questioning from the entire House of Commons on a weekly basis. The blogger suggests that the U.S. might be better off had President Bush been obliged to submit to such questioning before the invasion of Iraq. But Presidents have been loath to appear before congressional committees for questioning ever since George Washington stormed out of such a meeting in a great huff, complaining that the legislators' questions thwarted "every purpose of my coming here." Americans might argue that accountability is inherent in the separation of powers, but the fact of deference is too well established, and I might add that some sentiments or alleged thoughts are simply unworthy of respect no matter who utters them.

The blogger himself notes, however, that Wilson's specific language would have gotten him censured or suspended from most legislatures because he violated etiquette by calling Obama a liar. Had he simply shouted "that's not true," he might have gotten away with it in most places, but Wilson apparently crossed a line that once might have provoked a less mild man than the present President into demanding satisfaction on the field of honor. On the other hand, Obama himself had pretty much said that all the "deathers" and others spreading "falsehoods" about health care reform were liars (as most indeed are), so Wilson may have meant to respond in kind. From a global perspective, it looks like Wilson was forced to risk censure because he had no other way to confront the President directly. A Presidential Question Time has been proposed occasionally in this country, usually by people from a party opposing the President of the time, as a way to expose, embarrass or thwart executive ambitions. I say it's a good idea no matter who the President is, and it'd be a good idea for Obama to adopt it. If he is really as eloquent as claimed, and as good an extemporaneous speaker, he ought to be able to wipe the floor with Republicans on a regular basis -- but would he dare?

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