Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

The man who yelled, 'You lie' Add to ...

From obscurity to scrutiny to laughing stock, in two words flat.

Congressman Addison (Joe) Wilson, a five-term Republican representative of South Carolina's second district, had done little in his career to make the national stage. He was, instead, your standard lawyer-turned-politician with a sometimes hot temper and a history of voting for conservative values and military funding.

That is, until Wednesday evening, when Mr. Wilson ever so briefly stole centre stage from the world's most powerful man in a rare speech about one of his country's most pressing issues.

"You lie!" he shouted, during President Barack Obama's address to the joint houses of Congress - only the 15th such speech of its kind in the country's history. Mr. Wilson believes the health-care bill will offer free health care to illegal immigrants, and he was responding to the President's assertion that it wouldn't.

The two words prompted a calm "that's not true" from Mr. Obama, who then continued his speech while standing in front of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose eyes shot daggers towards the direction of the then-unknown heckler.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel immediately leaned on Republicans to identify the heckler in their midst - an easy task since many appeared as embarrassed as Democrats at the interruption of the historic speech. Arizona Senator John McCain, among the most senior members of his party, called the outburst "totally disrespectful."

"There is no place for it in that setting, or any other, and he should apologize for it immediately," he said.

Mr. Wilson did apologize - the President accepted - and he has remained largely out of the public eye since.

Online, however, he's become a celebrity - or rather, opposition to him has become a cause célèbre. A Facebook group ("No tenure for Joe Wilson") popped up. There was the Twittering of his office phone number that crashed his congressional website. ("Due to exceptionally high traffic, this site is temporarily unavailable.") His Wikipedia page was quickly locked amidst incessant tampering. And then there's the hundreds of thousands of dollars the remark sent into the lap of Rob Miller.

Mr. Miller could hardly have been expecting such a windfall. He's an Iraq war veteran who doesn't sit in Congress, but hopes to - he's set to challenge Mr. Wilson for the second district next year. Yesterday, he received more than $600,000 in donations for next year's election, an eye-popping figure driven by an online rebuff of his opponent.

On a Democratic campaign donation website, the pledges were listed under such subject lines as "defeating the man who yelled 'liar' at Obama," which raked in over $200,000; and "Californians against Joe 'the jerk' Wilson," which raised $1,700.

The backlash against Mr. Wilson appears to have been led, however, by another website: JoeWilsonIsYourPreExistingCondition.com. Set up yesterday, it gives a new Wilson insult with each click ("Joe Wilson is on your death panel," "Joe Wilson hit on your mom," and "Joe Wilson cancelled Arrested Development" among them). That site guided users to Mr. Miller's fundraising site.

Said to have been a protégé of the late Republican stalwart and curmudgeon Strom Thurmond, also from South Carolina, Mr. Wilson now finds himself in the unenviable position of keeping his nose down in the face of a looming fight against a well-funded Mr. Miller and criticism from both sides of the aisle.

In the meantime, he's offered little remorse in the few comments made. He called his outburst "spontaneous" and suggested he only apologized because the Republican brass made him.

"Last night I heard from the leadership that they wanted me to contact the White House and state that my statements were inappropriate. I did," he said.

Fittingly, when it came time to comment further, he too turned to the Internet.

"Stand with me against liberal attacks," he wrote on his Twitter page, which had just over 2,000 followers. "Today I need your help more than ever before."

HECKLING HISTORY

For Canadians accustomed to the bare-knuckled verbal brawling that goes on during Question Period, the fallout from congressman Joe Wilson's outburst during President Barack Obama's health-care speech might seem puzzling.

But since 1952, American presidents have called together joint sessions of Congress to address major national issues only 15 times. Rarely, if ever, has a president been heckled.

While Democrats booed and cried "no" during two of George W. Bush's congressional addresses - in 2004 and 2005 - Mr. Wilson's shouted allegation that Mr. Obama was lying about health-care reform was seen as particularly egregious. It is rare for President to be heckled, however. Most conflicts are between sitting members of Congress.

The most recent episode occurred on April 9, 1997, when a dispute arose between congressmen David Obey, a Democrat, Tom DeLay, a Republican, over references to a newspaper article critical of Mr. DeLay. That led to some name calling and shoving between them in the main aisle of the House floor. A staff member intervened to separate the two.

In 1995, during the debate over sending U.S. troops to Bosnia, congressmen Randy Cunningham, Republican, and Jim Moran, Democrat, got into a shoving match at the rear of the House chamber, which spilled into the hall - it became known as "the brawl in the hall." Capitol Hill police officers intervened.

On June 27, 1985, then-majority- leader Jim Wright, a Democrat, who was presiding over the House, left the rostrum, grabbed Bob Walker, a Republican, by the arm and threatened to punch him in the mouth.

Sources: Canadian Press, C-Span.org

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular