Joe Wilson

Democracy is not a stilted, stately procession down the marble halls of power. Democracy is a sometimes messy compromise, pushing and pulling, and most of all, a lot of dissent.
People are up in arms over the comment that Representative Wilson made during President Obama’s speech to a joint-session of Congress. I am amused. I suppose that they have forgotten what that chamber is and what has happened there.

I used to give tours of that building, and when we go to the House chamber, I liked to point out the painting of George Washington that hangs on the left side of the chamber when you look from the public balcony. There is a story about that painting that is probably apocryphal, but is one of those stories that could be true, because it reflects a truth about what I consider to be the greatest single room in the history of democracy in the World.

If you look at Washington from the public balcony, you see him dressed as a civilian, probably as he would have appeared as President. If you stand right next to it though, you see something else. He is actually wearing a sword at his belt, but it is so faint it can’t be made out farther than ten feet away. The story goes that during the run up to the Civil War, when the pro and anti-slavery factions in the House were at the boiling point, and a member of the US House actually went into the US Senate chamber and, with the help of a couple friends, caned an anti-slavery Senator unconscious on the Senate floor, that members were involved in shouting matches during votes and ready to call one another out to duels right on the steps of Congress itself. During this climate, it is said, the Speaker decided to outlaw weapons on the floor of the House of Representatives. Up until then, gentlemen had carried weapons as a matter of course, an ancient tradition that went back to the knights and almost a thousand years of dangerous roads rife with brigands in Europe.

According to the story, when the Speaker made the decision to outlaw weapons of all kinds, a single Representative stood up and pointed out that, as was tradition, the painting of a man who had been a General in life, George Washington, had been painted carrying a sword. The apocryphal omment went; “If he can stand on the floor of the House with a sword, so can I”. And the painting was subsequently modified to almost completely disguise Washington’s weapon.

The story is, as I said, a local urban legend from Capitol Hill, but the point is clear. That chamber has been the site of a tremendous amount of very heated dissent for the entire history of the United States of America. In fact, many of the greatest moments in out legislative history arrived just after shouting matches and a lot of flying spittle on the floor of that chamber. Dissent and heated debate have not been a bane to us in the past, but in fact proved the vitality of our democratic Republic. As far back as a the Constitutional Convention, many of the figures present had a tremendous amount of personal animosity for one another and this did not stop them from creating the most sublime work of government and law in human history.

When President Obama walked across the floor of the House chamber; he was following an ancient tradition. According to the protocols of that tradition, he could not even set foot in that chamber before formally asking permission of the House of Representatives to do so. By law, there is one person in the World who is NOT allowed to visit the chamber any time he pleases; the President of the United States. It was felt that his presence during critical discussions would unduly sway debate and undermine the autonomy of the legislative branch. Thus, Obama was standing in a chamber that was absolutely the lawful arena of Joe Wilson and the other Representatives, and he did so as a house guest, there by permission, not by right. Does that give Wilson the right to shout out during his speech? Yes, but it does not make it polite to do so.

I find it ironic that when a Representative accurately represents the attitude of a majority of his constituents in a way that he himself had just been subjected to for a month of town hall meetings, he is condemned for it. I doubt that all the people who had been yelling at him in town halls, in hopes that their voice would somehow carry to the President are unhappy that it actually did.

The United Kingdom has an ancient and very beneficial parliamentary system where the Prime Minister must stand in the House of Commons on a regular basis and be subjected to the criticisms (and yes, sometimes, the shouted comments of “liar!”) from his opposition. They call these sessions “Prime Minister’s Questions”, and they make very entertaining television as the two sides engage in a sophisticated and often heated debate. Many in the USA feel that we should have some kind of mechanism like this for actually questioning our President. A mechanism for bringing up to him the objections gleaned from such exercises as the hundreds of town hall meetings just completed by members of the US House. Well, during the period of our founding, it was decided that the President would have to stand accountable before the Congress and give a report on the “state of the Union” every year. I doubt that the framers had in mind a ceremonial procession followed by a sermon-style speech. Back in their day, people used to come to the House of Representatives with picnic lunches to watch the fireworks, because all that dissent was entertaining. Requiring the President to subject himself to that process once a year was the least they could do.

Our President is not a King and was never meant to be. This particular President needs to be reminded of that more than any other in my memory. That is why I defend the right of any member of the House to say anything they like to the President when he is standing on the floor of our House. Just the reminder that there are people who can question him, even rudely if they wish, is a valuable lesson that Obama would do well to internalize if he wants to actually work with the opposition party at all, rather than just try to bulldoze them.

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~ by Jubal Biggs on September 10, 2009.

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