Did Joe Wilson's 'You Lie' Outburst Cross the Line on Congressional Courtesy?

Nancy Pelosi reacts to an outburst from Joe Wilson

Heckling and booing of politicians is considered a national sport, but Wednesday night's outburst by Rep. Joe Wilson during President Obama's healthcare speech on the floor of the House may have reached a new low, according to congressional historians.

"It really does tell you how low we've sunk when it comes to common courtesy," said Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

"This is not something we've seen before during a presidential speech," said Ornstein. "Yes, we've had booing and hissing, but yelling in the middle of a speech 'you lie,' that's something different."

Video of President Obama saying he accepts Rep. Joe Wilsons apology.
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According to congressional expert Steven Smith, other more subtle signs of disapproval – rather than audible exclamations – are common in Congress and have come to be expected during major policy speeches.

"What has happened over the last quarter century is that the minority party – whether it's the Democrats or the Republicans – have become increasingly childish," said Smith. "They will sit on their hands and not applaud during obvious applause lines and react vocally to things they don't like."

"They'll have smirks on their faces, little orchestrated developments like last night's members holding their own copies of health plans in the air during the president's speech or will hiss or boo," said Smith.

Video of GOP congressman yelling "you lie" to President Obama when discussing illegal immigrants and health care.
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Wilson's outburst was the latest in a series of increasingly testy comments on both sides of the healthcare reform debate that began with town hall meetings around the country erupting into yelling matches that were marked by accusations -- from both sides -- of misleading deceptions and wildly inaccurate statements.

Wilson's heckling was also an indication of how hard it is to change the tone in Washington, a campaign promise made by both Obama and his predecessor President George W. Bush.

Video of Rep. Wilson saying his outburst during Obamas speech was spontaneous
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Bush was no stranger to hecklers. During his 2005 State of the Union address, Democratic members of Congress booed him loudly as he spoke.

Bush's father, former president George H.W. Bush, wasn't booed in the halls of Congress, but he came face-to-face with hecklers in 2003 when he received an honorary Doctor of Law degree from Central Connecticut State University as students screamed "mass murderer," referencing his war policies in Iraq.

In 1998, then-President Bill Clinton was bombarded with insults during his first public appearance since admitting an affair with Monica Lewinsky. Audience members screamed at Clinton to resign and called him a "liar" while the former president spoke at a Massachusetts' hall.

Earlier in his presidency, Clinton was berated by hecklers for being a "draft dodger" during a Memorial Day speech in 1993.

More recently, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused former President George W. Bush of lying about plans for dumping nuclear waste and later referred to him as a "loser" during a speech to a group of high school students.

And Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who was visibly taken aback by Wilson's comments last night, has had her own share of hecklers. The anti-war activists known as Code Pink screamed at Pelosi during a 2007 speech, demanding that the government bring troops home from Iraq.

Despite those incidents, Smith says that when considering more recent instances of outbursts toward politicians, this behavior by Wilson and others really isn't all that bad.

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