'You Lie!': Representative Wilson's Outburst

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Republican Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouts as President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of Congress on Sept. 9, 2009

"You lie!"

Those words cut in politics. When directed at the President of the United States — during a prime-time address to the nation, no less — they cut deep.

So when Representative Joe Wilson, a little-known Republican and Army Reserve veteran from South Carolina shouted them at the nation's Commander in Chief on the night of Sept. 9, heads snapped. The House chamber took a collective gasp. Nancy Pelosi, sitting behind Obama, tensed and scowled as if she had just witnessed a crime, her disgust unhidden.

Even President Obama, who had just dismissed conservative claims that illegal immigrants would be able to take advantage of health-care reform, was taken aback. He looked to his left, adjusted his arm, part nervous twitch, part macho posturing, and shot back at Wilson, "That's not true." And there, for a moment, the nation watched two men, elected to lead, call each other the worst thing in politics — dishonorable deceivers.

At the moment Wilson exploded, the outburst seemed like an assault on the President. Soon afterward, it was clear that it had been a gift. Wilson had, in an emotional expression, proven Obama's point: the summer of town halls had been less a discussion than a circus, a forum where misinformation was vindicated by passion, where disrespect was elevated to a virtue. Now the circus had come inside Congress.

The President's seemingly simple statement that "the reforms I am proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally" is not hard to check. In the Senate Finance Committee's working framework for a health plan, which Obama's speech seemed most to mimic, there is the line, "No illegal immigrants will benefit from the health care tax credits." Similarly, the major health-care-reform bill to pass out of committee in the House, H.R. 3200, contains Section 246, which is called "NO FEDERAL PAYMENT FOR UNDOCUMENTED ALIENS." Some Republicans have claimed that these protections are too weak, since they do not require stringent eligibility checks that would prevent illegal immigrants from gaming the system.

It did not take long for the condemnations to rain down on Wilson. Republican Senator John McCain went on CNN to call Wilson's behavior "totally disrespectful" and to ask for an apology. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy was beside himself as he walked out of the House chamber. "I've been here for 35 years. I've been here for seven presidents. I've never heard anything like that," he said, adding that he had no doubt how it would play in the hinterlands. "It strengthens the President, because it demonstrates what he is facing. Most people have respect for the President."

Sure enough, the apology was quick to come, in a statement from Wilson's office, which disowned only the tone, not the substance, of his comments. "This evening, I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the President's remarks regarding the coverage of illegal immigrants in the health care bill," the statement said. "While I disagree with the President's statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility." Wilson later called White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who accepted the apology on behalf of the President.

Despite such sentiments, Wilson's political foes in South Carolina did not hold back. "I hope the people of South Carolina will show their disdain for that," said Representative Jim Clyburn, the majority whip, who also represents the state. "To heckle is bad enough, but to use that one word, the one three-letter word that was not allowed to be used in my house while I was growing up, is beyond the pale."

Clyburn's own outrage was a bit overdrawn. Just before Wilson's scream, Obama himself had accused his unnamed opponents of offering "a lie, plain and simple." He was responding to the claim by some critics that Obama wanted panels of scientists empowered to deny health care to the ill and infirm, or as the President put it, "to kill off senior citizens." On this point, there is some discussion that could reasonably take place, if people agreed to speak reasonably.

The new panels that Obama has proposed to evaluate Medicare-reimbursement rates would effectively be able to shift treatment patterns, though their recommendations would have to be justified by science and could be overturned by votes of Congress. It is clearly a distortion to call these groups "death panels," as some critics like Sarah Palin have. As it now stands, Congress sets reimbursement rates, while private insurers routinely decide what potentially lifesaving treatments are worth paying for, and no one calls either death panels. But it is also legitimate to question the makeup and restrictions on these government panels.

But Wilson's outburst is on far shakier footing, even though the details of enforcement mechanisms for the bill have not been worked out. He was claiming something — benefits for illegal immigrants — that is expressly prohibited in the major legislative efforts in both houses of Congress. He was becoming the sideshow the President wanted to spotlight, and as such Wilson handed a great gift to his political enemies, for whom he clearly has little regard.

With reporting by Sophia Yan / Washington