Instant fame for South Carolina GOP congressman who heckled Obama

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 9, 2009 

Rep. Joe Wilson (pictured here in 2007) delivered his response before the speech was over.

CHUCK KENNEDY / MCT

WASHINGTON — Rep. Joe Wilson, a little-known Republican from South Carolina, stole the spotlight Wednesday evening by yelling out "you lie!" during President Barack Obama's address to Congress.

Wilson, a former senior Justice Department lawyer under President Ronald Reagan, delivered his catcall when Obama said his health-care plan wouldn't extend benefits to illegal immigrants.

Heads swiveled in the ornate House of Representatives chamber as senators, representatives, Cabinet members and other dignitaries turned to see who'd broken decades of solemn protocol for the rare occasions when the president addresses a joint session of Congress.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama's 2008 Republican presidential rival, said that Wilson should apologize.

It's "totally disrespectful," McCain said on CNN. There's "no place for it in that setting or any other, and he should apologize immediately."

Wilson, 62, a former military officer who over a quarter century in politics has carefully honed his image as a courteous warrior, said he called the White House and apologized to Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff.

"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," Wilson said in a statement.

"While I disagree with the president's statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable," he said. "I extend sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility."

Wilson's outburst made him instantaneously famous — a scourge to many, a hero to some.

Wilson's congressional Web site crashed and hundreds of calls started flooding into his office.

Other Republicans criticized Wilson, a onetime aide to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond who also served in the South Carolina General Assembly before he was elected to Congress in 2001.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, scolded Wilson without mentioning him by name.

"Our nation's president deserves to be treated with respect," Graham said. "It was an inappropriate remark, and I am glad an apology has been made."

Graham, however, also criticized Obama.

"I was incredibly disappointed in the tone of his speech," Graham said. "At times I found his tone to be overly combative and believe he behaved in a manner beneath the dignity of the office. I fear his speech tonight has made it more difficult — not less — to find common ground."

Rep. Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican, said: "The president deserves respect, especially when speaking to a joint session of the Congress. Our opposing views should be presented decently and in order, not as interruptions."

South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, a close political ally of Obama and the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, shot Wilson a furious glance after he yelled out.

Clyburn, though, chose not to comment on Wilson's remark after the address.

(David Lightman contributed to this article.)

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