Joe Wilson’s Contemptible Ploy

The political rule of thumb when it comes to apologies is to never be on the side of proffering one. The apologizer, such as Rep. Joe “You lie!” Wilson, R-S.C., is typically embarrassed and humbled amid another reminder of what it was that warranted humility and embarrassment in the first place. By being forgiving, the apologizee, such as President Barack “We all make mistakes” Obama, is rendered magnanimous and above the fray.


So much for conventional wisdom.


Wilson’s apology, actually conveyed through Rahm Emanuel, was at the behest of senior Republicans – not his own presumed sense of dishonor and disgrace. It thus resonated with the same degree of pro forma sincerity as Lane Kiffin’s mealy-mouthed mea culpa to Urban Meyer.


Wilson’s contemptible, joint-session shout-out wasn’t so much spontaneous outrage and incredibly poor, uncivil form. Wilson knows the political calculus afoot in the land and what plays well with town hall crackpots: ad hominem attacks against a black “socialist” with a Muslim name. No, Wilson’s disdainful ploy didn’t just demean Congress. It demeaned the president. As was its intent.


That consummate act of disrespect was Exhibit A for the greater GOP, de-legitimatization strategy. The sophistic specifics about illegals and health care were a mere pretext. It could have been over Obama’s “death panels” denial.


The point is no one would have dared to pull a stunt like that with Lyndon B. Johnson – even over the Gulf of Tonkin ruse – or George W. Bush – even over cherry-picked intelligence that justified the war-of-choice invasion of Iraq. Partisan politics have always been brutal inside the Beltway, and Bronx cheers have been heard in the hallowed chambers before. But some things you just didn’t do – until now.


You think Joe Wilson won’t be drawing high-fives out on the stump at all those political possum-roasts he attends in his home district? You think he won’t be sharing a dais with Sarah Palin before long? You think that House rebuke isn’t already on his resume? You think most Wilson supporters don’t think the only thing he did wrong was to “apologize”?


You have to believe that President Obama, who did the right thing by not overreacting to Wilson’s verbal spitball, was tempted — however fleetingly — to respond with the sort of heckler putdown you know he could have mustered.


It would likely have been a Pyrrhic victory, but it would have been a historic hoot.


To wit:


Wilson: “You lie!”


Assemblage: Taken aback. Many turn and stare. Lots of head shaking.


Obama: Closes speech text. Slight but noticeable pivot away from podium and Teleprompters. Physically separates himself from prepared remarks. Clears throat.


Assemblage: The hush of anticipation.


Obama: “You, over there. Yes, you, whoever you are. Thank you very much for demonstrating, far more effectively than anything I could have said, what it is that is woefully wrong with America’s politics today.


“It’s beyond partisan. It’s now perniciously partisan. You look good if I look bad. So, you yell out and disrespect this office and this officeholder. The ultimate, Washington-insider, zero-sum game. But you know what? It’s really not about you and the pitchfork-and-flambeau crowd you pander to or me and this administration. It’s about us. Upper-case U and upper-case S.  The U.S. The United States.


“Our challenges — on so many fronts — are more formidable than anything we’ve faced since the founding of America. Frankly, I shouldn’t have to give this lecture, but apparently I do. For openers, this is about our survival. The survival of America as we know it and love it. It’s certainly not about venerating the status quo. That’s a formula for failure.


“This is about our national security – which is a function of our economy, our military and our geopolitics. And “our” has to transcend every demographic niche – from socio-economic to religious to racial to, yes, political. It’s about the balance we strike between the unfettered capitalism of irresponsibility and greed gone amuck and the heavy hand of government over-regulation. It’s about the accountability we have to all Americans, especially future generations, to rein in deficits and do something about our environment — other than bad-mouth scientists. And it’s about the moral and fiscal imperative that is national health care reform.


“We have zero time to waste on counterproductive, political posturing that is not worthy of this country nor this historical chamber. We are challenged as never before – and we will not — we cannot — meet those challenges as a House, quite literally, divided and divisive.


“Surely, we can do better than this.


“Now where was I?”

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