Let’s put aside, for the sake of argument, the fact that President Barack Obama was telling the truth (as judged by FactCheck.org, Politifact.org, ABC News, and many other neutral sources) about how the House health-insurance reform bill excludes illegal immigrants from its benefits.
Let’s accept for the sake of argument that Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, though he wasn’t telling the truth, really thought he was.
In that case, he faced a choice between two values during the President’s address to Congress: telling the truth versus being polite.
In 2003, Wilson weighed a similar choice of values when Essie Mae Washington-Williams (shown above, courtesy of Talking Points Memo) revealed that Sen. Strom Thurmond—one of Wilson’s early employers—was her father. This was true, Wilson eventually conceded, but he still felt that Washington-Williams should not have made the information public.
Rep. Wilson decided then that being polite to Thurmond’s memory should trump telling the truth, even if the truth was about Thurmond being one’s own father.
This month, however, Wilson faced the same clash of values, and came down the other way. He felt that telling the truth was more important than being polite to the President of the United States as he was in the middle of a speech to both houses of Congress on national television.
What variable explains the difference in what Wilson judged to be proper action? I can’t help but think that he values being polite to the memory of a white man, even a segregationist skirt-chaser, as more important than being polite to a black man, even the elected President.
I’m far from the only observer who has reached this conclusion. On the 10th, the AP reported that “At least three members of Wilson's voluntary, minority advisory committee said they resigned Thursday.” And New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reluctantly decided, “Wilson’s shocking disrespect for the office of the president...convinced me: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.”
Wilson’s fellow Republicans in the House (not one of whom is black) have now refused to officially disapprove of his behavior, much less censure it. They voted that way even though, as the New York Times reports:
lawmakers have been cited for personal attacks on a president during routine House debate when the chief executive was not present. House guidelines on the rules of debate say it is impermissible to refer to the president as a liar.Wilson not only made an impermissible statement, but did so directly to the President during a joint session of Congress.
The Republican House leadership and rank and file chose to ignore their body’s rules and deem it acceptable to call this President a liar. So again I ask, What variable explains the difference?