Rep. Joe Wilson, gentleman lawmaker or lout?

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 12, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Rep. Joe Wilson spent three decades building an image of a courteous political warrior who treated his opponents with the utmost respect even as he disagreed with them.

A soft-spoken, retired Army National Guard colonel from a Southern family with a distinguished military background, Wilson appeared to epitomize the award-winning 1982 film "An Officer and a Gentleman."

Did the South Carolina Republican destroy that reputation in a single second of loud, rude anger heard by millions around the world?

Wilson, 62, may have to endure more public penance than the apology he's delivered to President Barack Obama for yelling "you lie" last week during Obama's health care address to Congress.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, whose district abuts that of Wilson, and other Democratic leaders have threatened Wilson with passage of an official reprimand unless he stands on the chamber's floor and apologizes to his colleagues.

House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, a South Carolina Democrat, said he'd never seen that kind of outburst in his 26-plus years in Congress.

"It was inexcusable," Spratt said Saturday. "I know he's apologized to the president, but there was a breach of decorum in the House on a very dignified occasion. I don't think his reputation is ruined, but he would help recover part of it if he went to the well of the House and made an appropriate apology."

Many conservative activists consider Wilson a hero for rebuking Obama, and well-wishers flooded his office in the days after his outburst.

But some influential Republicans and military officers strongly criticized Wilson for allowing the shouting and nasty exchanges of summertime town hall meetings to penetrate the inner sanctum of the U.S. Capitol.

Mark McKinnon, a prominent Republican strategist based in Austin, Texas, who has advised President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, called for Wilson's election defeat next year.

"That is the only way to change the political discourse in America today," McKinnon wrote Friday on www.thedailybeast.com. "Because as long as louts like Joe Wilson can spout off and call the president a liar and get rewarded with re-election, then louts will continue to spout off. And we will continue to claw our way to the very bottom of the political swamp."

Rep. Peter Roskam, an Illinois Republican, sat next to Wilson at Obama's address. In a widely published photo of Wilson yelling, Roskam is seen leaning into the aisle, physically distancing himself from the South Carolinian.

"I was thoroughly disappointed to hear a member of Congress interrupt the president in that fashion," Roskam said afterward. "Congressman Wilson shouldn't have treated the president of the United States that way."

Wilson, whose courtly manners exude Southern culture, seemed shell-shocked by his outburst.

While other lawmakers waited by the aisles to greet Obama after the speech or mingled with visiting Cabinet members and other officials, a chagrined Wilson rushed from the House chamber, ignoring efforts by other lawmakers to talk with him.

Wilson called the White House and apologized to his one-time colleague Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff and a former representative from Illinois.

Still shaken by the incident the next day in his office, Wilson blamed his outburst on "the passion of the moment" and described his conversation with Emanuel.

"I said, 'Rahm, it's my intention to have a civil disagreement on the issues of the bill. It's not personal to the president.'"

Wilson often wears his emotions on his sleeve.

When he sees uniformed military officers on Capitol Hill, he often dashes up to them, extends his hand, thanks them for their service and shows them photographs of his four sons, all of whom have served in the military.

Standing in his office Thursday, the U.S. Capitol dome rising through the window behind him, Wilson choked up in describing a call he'd received earlier that day from his nephew, who's serving in the Air Force in Iraq.

But that emotional trait can take a nasty turn.

In a 2002 appearance on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal," Wilson erupted when Rep. Bob Filner, a California Democrat, said the United States had given then-Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein chemical and biological weapons.

Pounding the table, Wilson repeatedly accused his colleague of despising his country.

"For you to say that is just a hatred of America that is very obvious!" Wilson exclaimed.

Clyburn was startled last month when Wilson hosted a raucous town hall meeting with 1,000 people, most of them angry conservatives, at Keenan High School.

The school is in Clyburn's district, three blocks from his home, and Clyburn's children attended it.

"That's indicative of the combativeness he displays all the time when it comes to politics," Clyburn said.

In 2006, Wilson violated what Spratt viewed as an unspoken gentleman's agreement in South Carolina politics that members of the state's congressional delegation won't aggressively campaign against one another.

Wilson walked door to door on behalf of Spratt's Republican opponent, Ralph Norman, called Spratt too liberal for his district at a news conference and turned thumbs down at Spratt supporters he passed driving by on the street.

Though Wilson was criticized from across the political spectrum for his shout-out at Obama, longtime allies rushed to his defense.

"Congressman Wilson is a friend of mine and is a good person," said Rep. Gresham Barrett, a Republican and gubernatorial candidate who served with Wilson in the state General Assembly before both men came to Washington.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, also a fellow South Carolina Republican who served with Wilson in the U.S. House before moving to the Senate, called him "a good man who made a mistake."

Wilson's yell has delivered instant fame and infamy. It's brought him far more attention than he drew over a 30-year political career as an aide to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond and the late Rep. Floyd Spence (who he replaced), and as a state senator and a deputy counsel in the Energy Department under President Ronald Reagan.

Alone in his office, the two sides of Joe Wilson seemed at odds as he grappled with his newfound fame and infamy.

Asked whether he would erase his outburst at Obama if he could, Wilson responded: "I would not do it again."

But the congressman quickly added, "I was just so appalled at the inaccuracy that was being told."

ON THE WEB

Rep. Joe Wilson's 2002 appearance on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" with California Rep. Bob Filner

Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's campaign

Democratic opponent Rob Miller's campaign

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