President Obama on Thursday accepted Rep. Joe Wilson's apology after the congressman shouted "You lie!" during the president's prime time address to Congress on health care.
"I'm a big believer that we all make mistakes," Obama told reporters at the White House after a Cabinet meeting. "He apologized quickly and without equivocation and I'm appreciative of that."
Wilson's apology — issued in a press release Wednesday night after Obama's speech and conveyed in a phone call to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel — did not prevent the South Carolina Republican's startling eruption from becoming Topic A in the nation's capital.
Morning news programs, the hallways of Congress and the World Wide Web were buzzing over what Wilson said in the middle of a room thronged with Washington VIPs, including foreign diplomats. "I was embarrassed for a chamber and a Congress I love. I served there for 36 years, and I thought it demeaned the institution," Vice President Biden said on Good Morning America.
Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., called on his Twitter account for Wilson to be reprimanded. "There ought to be a reprimand or censure of Rep. Joe Wilson to discourage that kind of conduct in the future," read Specter's Tweet.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reported that Bob Miller, a Democrat challenging Wilson for re-election next year, had raised $350,000 in campaign contributions in the hours following Wilson's comments. The congressman's official website crashed "due to unusually high traffic," an online announcement from his office said.
Pelosi was eager to shift the focus Thursday back to the substance of the president's health care proposal. She told reporters that Wilson's apology should end the issue. Other Democrats were not so willing to shrug it off.
"A major breach of decorum," is how Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., described Wilson's outburst. Hastings said Wilson should "apologize to the institution."
House Republicans also condemned Wilson's outburst, but House Minority Leader John Boehner was non-committal when asked whether he had tried unsuccessfully Thursday to persuade Wilson to deliver his apology personally from the House floor. "I do not relay my private conversations with members," he told USA TODAY.
Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement, worried that Wilson's eruption represents a sign that the fabric of America's civil society is fraying. "I don't know why people are so mad, so angry," said the Georgia Democrat, who was beaten on several occasions when he was a young demonstrator participating in civil rights marches. Lewis said he worries that Wilson's outburst might have dangerous repercussions. "If it's OK for a member of Congress to do this, what are other people in the community going to do?" he said.
Asked if he thought race might be a factor, Lewis said: "I hope not and I pray not."
Wilson's office did not return messages from USA TODAY and the congressman did make his usual daily appearance on the House floor to deliver a "one-minute" speech on the topic of his choice. He also skipped a scheduled appearance at a Capitol Hill rally for "Tea Party" protestors, gathering in Washington for a weekend march to protest the Obama administration's programs.