Two views: Wilson’s outburst unusual

Two experts discuss Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and his controversial outburst — “You lie!” — directed to President Barack Obama during the latter’s address to Congress on Wednesday night.

By Charles Bierbauer

The Congress is supposed to be a debating institution, but this [presidential address] was not designed as a forum in that regard. It’s not the British system where the prime minister appears before assembled members and answers questions. There is considerable respect for the office of the president regardless of who occupies it.

It was certainly out of the ordinary, and probably out of place. There was in fact, about five or six seconds earlier, a murmuring from members of Congress when the president says that the idea that health care will be extended to illegal immigrants is false. It’s the kind of thing you hear at question time in the British parliament — that back-bench murmuring. It is highly unusual.

Wilson is a back-bencher for the most part, not a leader or a mover-and-shaker. He hasn’t authored significant legislation. He’s strong in constituent service in the Strom Thurmond mold.

This was out of character. And it’s actually out of character for Joe Wilson, who is, if nothing else, an ingratiating sort. He’s extremely courteous. Knowing him, and I have known him for a number of years, he’s always been receptive, congenial and obliging. He is not an impolite man, but he was an impolitic one [Wednesday] night.

Charles Bierbauer, former CNN White House correspondent, dean of the College of Mass Communication and Information Studies, University of South Carolina

By Ross K. Baker

The House of Representatives is a much more raucous place than the Senate. During debates, there’s a lot of yelling in the House. That’s not unusual. What is unusual is to whom these comments are directed. Never to a president. There’s kind of code with members of Congress — most of them, anyway — that’s very similar to the code in the military: If you have an unpopular commander, the rule is you salute the uniform, not the man. You respect the office. That’s the protocol that Rep. Joe Wilson violated.

I don’t know of another example of that kind of heckling of a president in an address to a joint session of Congress. Members can express their disapproval many ways, you sometimes hear lots of groaning. Most of it is done in a much more restrained way. But the idea of yelling out “You lie!,” to my knowledge, is without precedent. Wilson got completely out of hand. Has the character of debate in Congress declined several notches below what it was once was? Yeah, that’s true. It’s a nasty, backbiting kind of place.

Ross K. Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University, and author of “House and Senate” (W.W. Norton)