In Defense of Joe Wilson

Joe Wilson is really a scum, but not because he called out the President of the United States.

Sort of.   I agree with Mark that Wilson is a scum, but I think it’s not because he yelled out something at the President.  

If, when George W. Bush said “The British have learned that Saddam is pursuing enriched uranium from Africa,” someone had stood up and said “That’s a lie!”, and called him on it, then that might have actually been a good thing for the Republic.  Somehow Winston Churchill got through World War II and David Lloyd George got through (the second half) of World War I having to face Prime Minister’s questions (although Churchill was working in a unity government).  Put another way:

1)         Lese-majeste is not a crime or a tort, and shouldn’t be;

2)         The reason why Wilson is a scum is that he himself is a liar, not because he dissented; and

3)         Overall, we could use a little less deference to the exalted King President of the United States.

This past month has made political raucousness look pretty bad, as it often does.  But it’s better that Congresscritters do it themselves than hide behind their minions.  The Senate often hides behind its elaborate decorum to disguise the viciousness of its members, and I’m not sure that that makes things better.

If anything, the problem over the last several years is that we have given too much respect to the Presidency, while Congress has just sat there.

And I think in general that this redounds to the Democrats advantage: I’d rather have someone be able to call something a “lie” when it is.  The Republicans will be on the receiving end more of this in any event.

My preferred solution is to have Obama get the same supine deference for the next 7 years that Bush got from the assorted press corps, and have everyone wonder whether Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck are traitors for disagreeing with the President of the United States.  Every time any Republican wants to know anything about Obama, he should be told that it is covered under the inherent powers of the Commander-in-Chief.  And after that, all bets are off.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

13 thoughts on “In Defense of Joe Wilson”

  1. It is a violation of the Rules of the House, going back to Jefferson's Manual, to attack the character of the President, the Vice President, or any member of either chamber:

    *** Members may not engage in personal abuse, innuendo, or ridicule of the President. It is out of order to question the President’s personal conduct, “whether by actual accusation or by mere insinuation.” References to the President that have been ruled unparliamentary include calling the President a "liar," attributing "hypocrisy" to him, accusing him of "demagoguery," and alluding to alleged personal misconduct or a "propensity for unethical behavior" on the President’s part.***

    British practice is not different in this regard. It is out of order for a Member to refer to another as a "liar" or to one of his statements as a lie. That is the origin of the euphemism "gross terminological inexactitude."

    If Wilson had called the President a "liar" in debate, he could have been called to order and his words "taken down." I don't think that a bad rule, and it seems to me that its enforcement in this (to my eye) graver case would be appropriate. Should Represntatives and Senators have objected to the Beloved Leader's attempts to subvert the Constitution? Hell, yes! But even then, they would have been right to leave the insults and character attacks to the bloggers who know how to administer them.

  2. But Mark, the problem is and was that Bush IS a liar — and not to be able to say so in a debate basically means that you cannot say the truth. The line you are drawing between "character" and "policy" is very thing: painfully so. President Bush was and is a hypocrite and a liar. It is not unethical to say so; it is the truth.

    As for Jefferson's Manual, it wouldn't be the first time he was dead wrong (although in fact it wouldn't be Jefferson's Manual, because he wrote the rules for the Senate, not the House). In any event, the late 18th Century notion of "character" was very different than ours, and it's a good thing, too.

    What you're saying, in effect, is that a member of Congress can only attack someone for being a hypocrite, a demagogue, or a liar on Fox News, when there is no one to rebut him. That does not seem to me to be a good way to run things.

  3. Jonathan, you could say "That's not true, and here's why." Calling a liar a liar is not just unparliamentary, it's ineffective. Imagine the media vapours over this. Imagine the framing.

  4. I agree that there should be less deference to our great and glorious president whoever it is. Wilson's choice of venue though is still wrong. It's a speech not a debate. Disrupting speeches is called heckling not debating.

    Jonathan makes an excellent point about the British managing to deal with much more open hostility but it is in a forum like the weekly question period as he also mentions. That is a key difference and a significant weakness as I see it in our own political discourse.

    I think it would the republic a world of good to act like a republic and have the president in the well of the house each and every Tuesday for an open question period.

    Imagine trying to get all imperial after that!

  5. While I don't necessarily have a problem with adopting a British-style system of heckling, what bothers me is the timing of this sudden change in norms — I think this outburst is of a piece with other behavior aimed speficially at denigrating this president. Saxby Chambliss calling for "humility," the ruckus over Obama's school speech, now heckling — it is all dog-whistling by elected officials to the Republican base that this president is less deserving of respect than his predecessors. Correct me if I'm mistaken, but I don't recall Democratic officials treating Bush this way when he took office (even though there was a strong belief that he has stolen the election). It absolutely smacks of racism to me, and I find it despicable for that reason.

  6. Churchill did face criticism and a vote of confidence in the House of Commons after Yalta over the inevitable sellout of Poland. He won easily though: only 25 voted for the critical amendment.

  7. Democrats were vocal during Bush's 2005 SOTU speech. Republicans were vocal during multiple SOTU speeches by Clinton. I don't think Democrats should milk this since there will inevitably be clips of their reactions to Bush in 2005 playing round the clock any day now, and with good reason.

  8. Wilson didn't call the president a liar; he called his statement a lie. The latter attacks the nature of the statement, the former the character of the person making the statement. Thus, Wilson violated no rule regarding attacking the character of the president.

    If every reference to the untruth of a statement is an attack against the character of the person making the statement, then "[t]hat’s not true, and here’s why . . ." is every bit an attack on the person's character as stating "you lie." Indeed, under the suggested interpretation, debate itself would be prohibited because any disagreement would be, by implication, an attack on the opposing party's character.

    Character attacks are ad hominem attacks that according to the rules of civility have no place in an honest debate. This is what the rule seeks to eliminate. Calling a statement a "lie" is not an ad hominem attack, while calling the maker of the statement a liar is. Thus, Wilson's attack is, as Mr. Zasloff indicates, wrong because it was itself a falsehood, not because it was an attack on the president's character in violation of either civility or the rules of Congress.

  9. The Democrats should milk the fact that Wilson lied when he said the president lied.

    There is nothing wrong, however, with interrupting a lie with the truth. The Constitution does not confer the right to lie nor does civility demand quiet acquiescence to untruth, a principle embodied in our libel and slander laws, as well as those prohibiting false advertising, fraud, and similar sins. Acquiescence to opposing opinions is what civility and our constitutional principles demand, nothing more.

  10. My dictionary gives, as the meaning of "liar," "one who lies."

    "That's not true" admits the possibility of mistake. "You lie" means that the person you're referring to was attempting to deceive. That, surely, is an attack on character.

    For example, while Wilson's character is defective in many ways, and while his statement was false, I doubt that he was lying; much more likely, he believes what he said.

  11. Yeah, but "You significantly underestimate the practical difficulties involved in effectively keeping undocumented aliens from receiving health care benefits" would have been quite a mouthful.

  12. I agree with Mark in that there can be no fundamental separation between alleging that someone has lied and making a comment on the character of the person whom you are accusing of lying. To state that someone has lied is to accuse that person of knowingly falsifying information. By making such a declaration you are inherently labeling that person a liar. You cannot simultaneously tell a lie and not be a liar. I don't see any way in which you can construe Wilson's outburst as a non character attack.

    That being said I agree with others in this thread in that there should be a venue through which members of congress can openly question and debate the President. A speech, however, is not the place and time to try to start a debate.

  13. "You cannot simultaneously tell a lie and not be a liar."

    Sure you can. To be a liar is to be someone who lies, plural, not someone who has simply told a lie, if one is talking character.

    Are you saying that you have never lied?

    Everyone has lied at least once. Therefore, everyone is a liar according to the proposed theory that anyone who tells a lie is a liar in the context at issue.

    That is utterly ridiculous.

    A person can tell a lie without that being defining of that person's character.

    It is the habit of lying that is associated with the term "liar."

    If you want to play semantic dictionary games to justify nonsensical conclusions that would make every person on the planet a liar, then have at it, but don't expect anyone to buy such rationalization.

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