There is, of course, no excuse for Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina who shouted, "You lie!" in the middle of President Obamaís health care speech last night. As Dana Milbank put it in this morningís Washington Post, "the nation''s rapidly deteriorating discourse hit yet another low." But wait a minute. Only a moment before in his speech, the president himself had accused his critics of lying. Was that not equally an example of the speakerís "effrontery" and of "deteriorating discourse"? Or is the charge only shocking and outrageous when a Republican makes it? Did Mr Milbank sleep through the years 2001-2008 that he has no memory of how the discourse deteriorated then? I was against all rhetorical resort to the charge of political bad faith before it was popular to be against it ó back in the day, that is, when you could hardly open a newspaper or listen to a Democrat speak without encountering at least a hint ó and often much more than a hint ó of bad faith on the part of another president. What was his name again?
It wasnít just Frank Rich and Keith Olbermann either. Democrats who were considerably senior to Congressman Wilson engaged in the same kind of language. As an example, Matt Drudge today links to an interview Harry Reid gave to the late Tim Russert in 2004:
MR. RUSSERT: When the president talked about Yucca Mountain and moving the nationís nuclear waste there, you were very, very, very strong in your words. You said, "President Bush is a liar. He betrayed Nevada and he betrayed the country." Is that rhetoric appropriate?
SEN. REID: I don''t know if that rhetoric is appropriate. Thatís how I feel, and thatís how I felt. I think to take that issue, Tim, to take the most poisonous substance known to man, plutonium, and haul 70,000 tons of it across the highways and railways of this country, past schools and churches and peopleís businesses is wrong. Itís something that is being forced upon this country by the utilities, and itís wrong. And we have to stop it. And people may not like what I said, but I said it, and I donít back off one bit.
The late, sainted Ted Kennedy in whose name the President pleaded for Republican support of his health care program ó or some health care program that he could call his ó was particularly given to charging President Bush with lying over the war in Iraq. Why isnít turnabout fair play? It would seem pretty hard to argue that the bar was not lowered for such incivility and boorishness during the Bush years, and for that the Democrats and the media who are now tut-tutting about Mr Wilson bear a heavy responsibility.
Not, as I say, that thatís any excuse for the gentleman from South Carolina, who at least apologized for his remark almost as soon as it was made ó which was more than Senators Reid and Kennedy ever did. But I canít help feeling a sneaking sympathy for him, too, on account of the tacit conspiracy of the Democratic majority and the media to treat this presidentís words, in striking contrast with those of his predecessor, as the truth merely because he has uttered them. That, after all, is why last nightís speech was greeted with such anticipation beforehand and such enthusiasm afterwards by the Obamites. For them, his saying that he was going to fix health care seemed tantamount to his actually fixing it. As in so many other areas, the media are always ready to take the assertion for the fact, and no questions asked.
Throughout the time he has been in office, for example, Mr Obama has continued to insist that the measures which he and his congressional allies propose will actually save the taxpayers of this country money, ignoring the trillion dollars plus that the Congressional Budget Office estimates they will cost. He said it again last night when he claimed that doing nothing would make the deficit worse. If that means anything, it means that doing what he proposes will make it better, yet you may look in vain through the commentary on last nightís speech for any note of the extreme implausibility of that contention. In general, the gap between rhetoric and reality for this president has been obvious to his critics, though it rarely gets a mention in the press except as a feature of that critique ó which, since it issues from the likes of Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh ó is supposed to be self-discrediting. You can at least understand Joe Wilsonís frustration. "Thatís how I feel," he might have said along with Harry Reid if he were less of a gentleman than he was ó or as much of a boor as the senior senator from Nevada.