Commentary: Shame on Joe Wilson

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn stopped by to chat the other day, and as usual I was a little put off by how partisan he is.

But I suppose that comes with the territory when you're majority whip. Besides, I know more than a few Republicans who are every bit as certain as he is that the world is easily and obviously categorized into neat little "Republican" and "Democratic" boxes.

Mr. Clyburn also has a disputatious approach toward our editorial board that I don't consider justified. Which brings us to Joe Wilson.

I don't recall how it was that the congressman from Columbia's black congressional district came to talk about the congressman from Columbia's white congressional district (if you don't like that characterization, blame the Legislature - please - which deliberately drew a black district and a white district that bisected this community), but at one point Mr. Clyburn asserted that if he had yelled out "You lie" during a congressional address by President George W. Bush, our editorial board would have demanded his resignation.

I protested that I could not imagine treating him any differently than we had treated Mr. Wilson: I wrote a column condemning his outburst and saying his White House apology was a start but insufficient, and then we turned our attention back to state and local matters. But the Richland Democrat remained adamant, even when I pointed out that Warren Bolton and I are the people who decide what the editorial board says, and then say it. As far as he was concerned, we didn't hit the Lexington Republican hard enough for his outburst.

If the outburst and apology had been the end of the matter, he would be wrong. But it wasn't. In fact, Mr. Wilson's behavior since "You lie" has been far more disturbing than the outburst itself.

I think the former was spontaneous; inexcusable, but spontaneous. The same is not true of the way Mr. Wilson has deliberately and systematically capitalized on his shameful behavior, in a campaign that at best has made a mockery of his apology.

I held my tongue because I figured he was behaving the way any politician would have: Tens, then thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars started gushing into the coffers of his Democratic opponent. If Mr. Wilson had not capitalized on his misbehavior, he could have found himself outpaced in the vital money race. To remain contrite or try to put this behind him would put his job at risk, and that, I figured, is a lot to ask of a politician.

I was wrong. Not wrong in believing that contrition would have endangered his job; it might well have. Wrong to have allowed myself to believe that's too much to ask of an elected official.

Every day, there are people in this country, in this state, who put their jobs on the line over principle. Whistle-blowers are the most dramatic examples. But there are lower-profile examples as well: Lobbyists and attorneys and public relations people quietly decline to argue a case they don't believe in; teachers quit rather than teach a curriculum they think is too dumbed down. Parents refuse to work those extra hours that would make the extras easier to afford because it's more important to be parents.

Just how did it come to be that we expect less of our elected officials than we would of our co-workers, our children, ourselves? Whatever happened to the idea that the people we elect are a cut above? That they're leaders, whose actions and demeanor and lifestyle we should emulate? People to look up to?

Yes, yes, I know the history - how Watergate turned us all cynical, particularly people in my profession, who started asking harder questions of politicians and at some point got too carried away. How over time our best and brightest decided they weren't going to put themselves through all that in order to be allowed to devote part of their lives to public service. How this only deepened our cynicism and pushed even more talented leaders out of the field. How simultaneously that whole movement toward surgically drawn single-member districts allowed elected officials to select their voters instead of the other way around, and further alienated big-picture centrists who wanted to serve the entire community, or state, or nation, rather than pandering to the extremes in their homogeneous little districts.

And on and on until we arrived at this very ugly place where we don't even expect our elected officials to live up to the standards we set for ourselves, much less meet higher standards. And no, if we were able to peel back our political predispositions and apply the very same principals to our everyday lives, we would not find it acceptable to shout down a guest in our homes, merely because we didn't like what she said. And if somehow we did that anyway, we would apologize immediately - and we'd mean it. And we would not send the video that Uncle Bobby took of the ugly incident to America's Funniest Home Videos, in hopes of making a buck off of it.

I'm tired of settling for less in our politicians and our politics. I'm tired of a governor who merely doesn't undermine our industrial recruitment efforts. I'm tired of a Legislature that merely doesn't pass any really, really bad laws one year. I'm tired of a Congress that expects us to swallow major legislation with major flaws, because that's the only way it'll give us even a smidgen of what our country needs. I'm tired of elected officials who see everything through partisan-colored glasses. And I'm tired of Joe Wilson making money - for himself and for other candidates - off of the outburst that he himself acknowledged was completely inappropriate.

He ought to be ashamed of himself. I certainly am ashamed of him.