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Famously, he shouted “you lie” at President Obama during the president’s prime time healthcare address to Congress Wednesday, putting himself at the center of the debate about political civility.
Now, Democrats in the House are demanding that he apologize to the members of the chamber or face disciplinary action – something he said Sunday that he will not do. For a nation obsessed with apologies, his is but the latest example.
Mr. Wilson is, in a way, the logical byproduct of a dyspeptic political summer. Many Americans used August town halls to spout all manner of bile at members of Congress – rants often accompanied by finger jabs and raised voices.
Had Wilson’s verbal incontinence Wednesday night come during a town hall, it might have been one of the more measured criticisms made.
True, the halls of Congress and the seal of the presidency are expected to excite some sense of veneration – at the very least for the institutions. This is what the members of Congress who seek to censure Wilson might hope.
But if the congressional dais is the pulpit of American politics, should it be so surprising that it is merely reflecting the political state of the nation, which is clearly disrespectful at the moment?
"I think, in some ways, that's what you really saw last night: the degree of acceptance of that angry discord that we've really hadn't seen in a long time," Kasie Hunt, a healthcare reporter for National Journal's Congress Daily told CNN.com after the address.
Wilson hinted at this in his appearance on Fox News Sunday. He had just come off a comprehensive town-hall tour, in which South Carolinians were “passionate,” he said, surely employing understatement.
In front of the president, “I had a town-hall moment,” he added.
It is admirable and necessary for House leaders to try to insulate the chamber from incivility in the political world at large. But it is also, perhaps, disingenuous.
The recent passing of Sen. Edward Kennedy – hardly a centrist – gave people in Washington a moment to reflect on the passing of the way the Congress used to work: by finding common ground to make deals across the aisle.
That increasingly seems as quaint as a Norman Rockwell painting – a relic of another era.
It is undoubtedly crucial to maintain civility in Congress. But such incidents suggest the bubbling over of a deeper problem: Congress’s inability to find common ground behind closed doors. Only one of the five congressional committees charged with writing a healthcare reform bill made a serious effort to address the most fundamental Republican concerns.
Wilson suggests the effort to have him apologize to the House – after he has already apologized to the president – is “playing politics.”
The same insistence on apologies was apparent after another prime time presidential address: when Mr. Obama’s asserted that police in Cambridge, Mass., “acted stupidly” in arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his front porch. His comments made the issue a national obsession.
Professor Gates said he would not apologize to the police sergeant who arrested him, James Crowley. And Crowley said he would never apologize.
Neither has yet. But somehow, America has been able to move on.
Obama’s Beer Summit showed that, in an environment of respect, two men can agree to disagree and still accomplish something – in that case reconciliation.
Perhaps what Obama really needs to do on healthcare is start taking beverage requests from Congress, starting with Wilson and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Town hall report card
Read about how, despite the obvious rancor in August's healthcare town halls, some significant things were accomplished.
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