WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama Thursday accepted Rep. Joe Wilson's apology for interrupting his health care speech to Congress, but the South Carolina Republican continued to insist that the president misled the nation with "inaccurate statements."
Wilson, a retired Army National Guard colonel who's serving his fifth term in the House of Representatives, transformed himself overnight from a relatively obscure lawmaker into a virtual household name and a symbol of the belligerent atmosphere of American politics today.
Democrats and Obama supporters pilloried Wilson for accusing the president of lying during Obama's televised speech to a joint session of Congress. A number of Republicans criticized him publicly, but he told McClatchy that many of his House colleagues praised him privately.
"I've been very pleased at the number of people who have told me that what I said is what they felt," Wilson said.
The episode also vaulted Wilson's re-election opponent, Iraq war veteran Rob Miller, into new visibility.
Miller, a former Marine Corps captain who ran against Wilson in 2008, said supporters donated $400,000 to his campaign between 9:30 p.m. Wednesday and 5:30 p.m. Thursday.
"As a former Marine, I was always trained to respect the chain of command," Miller told McClatchy. "I was surprised that Congressman Wilson would disrespect the commander-in-chief on national television. His actions really exemplify everything that's wrong in Washington. Shouting and name-calling have no place when we're dealing with such important issues."
After Obama told Congress Wednesday evening that illegal immigrants wouldn't get health benefits under his proposed healthcare overhaul, Wilson yelled, "You lie!"
In a long, complex explanation Thursday, Wilson acknowledged that Obama's assertion about illegal immigrants was technically correct.
Wilson, though, said the House Democratic health care bill has no provisions to enforce a ban on benefits to undocumented workers, so he claimed they'd end up getting government health insurance under the measure.
"When he said illegal aliens would not be covered, the wording says that, but there's no enforcement," Wilson said. "When the Republicans offered amendments (to toughen enforcement), they were defeated . . . . So, when he said that, I was just really appalled."
Wilson added: "Now, I did wrong. I should not have spoken up, but what he said was not correct."
Wilson called former Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, after the address and apologized. Obama offered a gracious response Thursday after meeting with his Cabinet.
"I'm a big believer that we all make mistakes," Obama said. "He apologized quickly and without equivocation. And I appreciate that. I do think that we have to get to the point that we have a conversation without . . . assuming the worst in people."
Many conservative activists, however, hailed Wilson as a new hero of their raucous summer-long opposition to Obama's bid to provide health insurance to Americans who lack it.
Well-wishers from across the country stopped by Wilson's office throughout the day, and Wilson campaign aides said he raised $200,000 in the wake of his outcry.
"I had not heard of him before today," said Pace Allen, a lawyer visiting Washington from Tallahassee, Fla. "We just wanted the congressman to know that we'll be sending him some contributions."
Sentiment among Wilson's constituents ranged from admiration to contempt.
Diane Sough, a retired insurance agent from Hilton Head, S.C., went to Wilson's office with her husband to express her support.
"He's like the boy who yelled out, 'The emperor has no clothes,'" she said. "Well, this president has no truth."
Mike Brown, a Vietnam War veteran, said he was born in Charleston, graduated from The Citadel and is a Wilson constituent, though he declined to identify his hometown.
"Joe Wilson has never been courteous," Brown said. "He was, and remains, an opportunistic, cynical lout."
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a Democrat whose congressional district abuts Wilson's, said he wasn't satisfied with his fellow South Carolinian's apology to the White House.
Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, threatened Wilson with an official House sanction unless he issued an apology to his fellow lawmakers.
"Either he can deal with it or the House can deal with it," Clyburn told reporters. "If he does not apologize to the members of the House, then I think a resolution will probably be introduced, and we will go from there."
Clyburn and other Democratic House leaders have a range of options, from a resolution of disapproval to a measure expressing full censure of Wilson.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a fellow South Carolina Republican who criticized Wilson late Wednesday, came to his defense Thursday.
"Joe Wilson is a good man," Graham told Fox News. "He should not be defined by that one moment. He has four boys who are all in the military. He's a good congressman. He's passionate about politics."
Graham accused Obama of having "set the wrong tone in that session" while addressing Congress, deriding it as "a partisan pep rally instead of a chance to bring the country together."
Graham said Miller won't defeat Wilson, and he vowed, "I will do everything I can to help get him re-elected."
Rep. Gresham Barrett, a South Carolina Republican who's running for governor, said: "Congressman Wilson is a friend of mine and is a good person. . . . It is important that we move on from this incident, so that we can better focus on the issues at hand."
(Leroy Chapman of The State in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY