Politics & Government

Calling someone a liar isn't new, but Wilson set a new standard

WASHINGTON — Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina made history Wednesday night.

Until 9:08 p.m., it was likely that no one had ever called a president of the United States a liar to his face at a speech before a joint session of Congress.

When President Barack Obama denied that health care reform would help illegal immigrants purchase insurance, the South Carolina Republican didn't use the polite patois of Congress and angrily shout, "You're misinformed!"

Wilson yelled, "you lie!"

"It reminded me of when (President George W.) Bush got a shoe thrown at him" in Iraq, said Christopher Arterton, dean of the graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. "It just seemed so disrespectful."

The use of unfiltered language has a history of bipartisanship. Neither presidents nor high-ranking officials have always gotten a pass.

In 2002, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, now the Senate majority leader, called Bush "a liar" in a dispute over moving nuclear waste to his state's Yucca Mountain.

That was at a news conference, which isn't quite the same as saying it in the same room as the president and before an audience of more than 500 members of Congress, the Cabinet, the diplomatic corps, the first lady and 21 million television viewers.

Former President Harry Truman, who lobbed his share of political grenades, once called Richard Nixon "a shifty-eyed goddamn liar . . . He's one of the few in the history of this country to run for high office talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time and lying out of both sides."

That was in 1968 when Nixon was running for president. He still got elected.

Even former President Jimmy Carter once sent a zinger in the direction of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a dust-up a few years ago over his trip to the Middle East. He didn't call her a liar, but a spokesman said that "perhaps inadvertently, she is continuing to make a statement that is not true."

No such nuance, though, for former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who once called Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "the most notorious liar in the country."

Or for former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who pretty much labeled then-Vice President George H.W. Bush a liar during the 1988 presidential race. Both were seeking the Republican Party's nomination.

"Stop lying about my record," a peeved Dole said after Bush won the New Hampshire primary.

Campaigns have always played fast and loose with the facts, but as the partisan divide in Washington has grown, the rules have changed.

"Now we're in an era of the permanent campaign and the line between campaigning and governing is virtually gone," said Gary Jacobson, who teaches political science at the University of California, San Diego.

Enter Wilson. After his shout on Wednesday night heard round the political world, his Democratic opponent in 2010 had raised $400,000 by Thursday evening.

That's proof enough for Kim Alfano Doyle, a Republican campaign strategist for two decades, who said that Wilson's move was crass and that the take-no-prisoners approach is a mistake.

"It just looks ugly. It looks petty; it looks like no one's getting anything done," she said. "When you're up there having a slap fight, you're not taking it seriously. Everything's a campaign and that's a shame."


South Carolina Republican becomes symbol of bellicose politics

Instant fame for GOP congressman who heckled Obama

Obama's speech fails to move many lawmakers' votes

Experts doubt Obama can pay for health plan with savings

Obama offers compromises to get health care bill passed

The highlights of Obama's health care plan

Check out McClatchy's expanded politics coverage at Planet Washington

Related stories from McClatchy DC