Joe Lies: Rules for Heckling the President

Rowdy joint session of Congress? Just follow these guidelines.

David Swerdlick

11 September 2009

It’s a pretty safe bet that when Rep. Joe Wilson shouted, “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s address to congress, Wilson had no intention of being the lone angry voice cutting through the silence of Obama’s pregnant rhetorical pause. He got sandbagged by his Republican colleagues who suddenly fell silent—Wilson thought he’d be part of a chorus, not doing a solo.

Sound familiar? Congressman Wilson, meet Frank the Tank:

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Wilson, a heretofore unknown congressional backbencher, stirred up a hornet’s nest with his unprecedented “audacity of dope” moment on Wednesday night. Given today’s political culture, there’ll probably be a next time, so let’s make sure that everyone’s clear on the dos and don’ts:

You Can’t Apologize for Apologizing

It is, as they say, a free country. If you’ve got the stones to call the president a liar at a nationally televised prime time joint address to congress—go for it, player. But then don’t apologize later.

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And definitely don’t go on Sean Hannity’s show and apologize for apologizing by saying that you respect “the office of the president” but you think there’s a “double standard.” If you mean the double standard that leaves room for a white congressman to heckle a black president, but not vice versa, then yeah, we’re sorry about that, too.

Heckling says, “I’m not scared of you.” Apologizing says, “Am I still on your Superbowl guest list?”

You Can’t Refuse a “Chal-Lenge!”

This is why they had duels back in the day. When someone heckled a speech in Congress, heckle-ee could address the heckle-or like so:

“You sir, are a cad—en garde!”

Since neither Obama or Wilson is probably skilled with a fencing sabre, the choices here should be a nationally televised game of H-O-R-S-E, 20 nationally televised high stakes, heads up hands of no-limit Texas hold ‘em—using the players’ own cash—or an American Idol style speech-a-thon, wherein each man had a chance to speak for 5 minutes and then gets critiqued by Ellen.

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You Might Be a Redneck If…

Do black people have to do everything now? African Americans are running the country, winning all the golf tournaments, and providing Jimmy Fallon’s backup music. Do African Americans have to patrol manners and decorum now, too? What’s happens next? Black folks set interest rates?

Memo to white Americans—thanks to Congressman Wilson and others, you’re dangerously close to getting Robert’s Rules of Parliamentary Procedure and Emily Post’s Etiquette officially replaced by Parliament Funkadelic and Karen Grigsby Bates’ New Basic Black.

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You Don’t Really Want Any of This

If Republicans choose to pick Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck to defend Wilson, when the situation is reversed, Democrats get to go with Chris Rock, Eminem, and Tony Blair:

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If we had Prime Minister’s Questions in America, bet 10 to 1 on Obama against the field. Trust.

You Can’t Put the Toothpaste Back in the Tube

If a guy from one party heckles the other party’s president, that guy’s party is banned from complaining the next time someone from the other party heckles that party’s next president.

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Got that?

So, if Gov. Mitt Romney ever wins the White House and gives a speech to a joint session of Congress, and an unknown Democratic congresswoman shouts “Eat me!” from the back row, the only acceptable Republican response is: “God bless America and our beautiful First Amendment.”

You Gots to Chill

This one is for the House Democrats.

So far, they won this round. When Wilson let fly with his outburst, Obama’s facial expression was a mix of “Dude, I’m standing right here” and “We’ll get to questions in a minute, player.” Biden’s woeful downward glance said, “We’re not all related,” and Pelosi’s reaction was a three way tie between “See me after class,” and “Wigga, please.”

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So, while it’s touching that House Majority Whip James Clyburn, the second highest-ranking African American elected official in the federal government wants to bring Wilson up on charges via the House rules, there’s really no need. And it could easily backfire, because any kind of formal committee proceeding or move to censure is likely to wind up going something like this:

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Clyburn should just skip it. The kind of justice he’s looking for is really something more like this:

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David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.