Obama accepts Wilson's outburst apology

ByKathy Kiely, USA TODAY
September 10, 2009, 1:21 PM

WASHINGTON -- 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.

He may have missed a warm welcome. "I'd like to shake his hand," said Nancy Foster of La Grange, Ca., a participant at the rally. She said she watched the president's speech on television and wasn't troubled by Wilson's interruption. "Somebody has to start speaking out," Foster said.

Wilson's Republican colleagues said he was out of line. "We ought to be able to get our message across to the president without resorting to playground tactics," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. But he argued that the eruption was in a long congressional tradition. "The House is kind of a rowdy operation," Barton said. "We scream and yell a lot."

Rep. Bob Inglis, another South Carolina Republican issued a statement saying, "The president deserves respect, especially when speaking to a joint session of the Congress. Our opposing views should be presented decently and in order, not as interruptions."

Voters in Wilson's homestate also expressed chagrin. Six out of six people interviewed at Tommy's Country Ham House, a frequent venue for Republican events in Greenville, S.C., said they thought Wilson's outburst was out of place, even if they agreed with him.

"He has the right to say what he feels, but you should also have respect for Obama for being the president," said waitress Sheryl Johnson, 50. "You shouldn't just holler it out on national TV."

"It just makes our state look even more ridiculous since Governor Sanford's ordeal started," said Ed Burns, a 52-year-old air-conditioning serviceman. The reference was to the much-publicized liaison with an Argentine woman that resulted in a national manhunt for Gov. Mark Sanford, and his wife's decision to move out of the governor's mansion.

Wilson's outburst came as Obama was decrying claims that his plan would cover illegal immigrants as false. The remark was clearly audible on the floor and the galleries above. "Heads snapped," said House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter. "I've been here a long time," added the New York Democrat, a 23-year House veteran. "I've never heard anyone accost a president like that."

Immediately after Obama's speech, members of both parties expressed shock and regret. "I cringed," said Rep. David Dreier of California, the top-ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee. "I think it's just unfortunate." Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., told the Gannett Washington Bureau, "I do not appreciate" Wilson's outburst.

Senior Republicans, including Obama's opponent in last year's election, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., quickly called on Wilson to apologize. About 90 minutes after Obama finished, Wilson issued a statement saying he had "let my emotions get the best of me."

"My comments were inappropriate and regrettable," the statement said. "I extend sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility."

Wilson's office said the congressman called the White House on Wednesday night to apologize personally to Obama but was connected to White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a former House colleague. In an interview Thursday with WLTX TV in Greenville, S.C., Wilson said he told Emanuel "that what I stated was inappropriate, that we would now have a civil discussion."

Wilson, in his fifth term, told a town-hall-style meeting last month that bipartisanship is key to resolving the nation's health care problems. "I give a speech every day on the floor (of Congress) about how Democrats and Republicans should be working together to reform health care," The State newspaper in South Carolina quoted Wilson as saying.

Sen. Patrick Leahy said colleagues sitting near him were "just shocked" by Wilson's shouted insult. "None of us had ever heard anything like it," he said.

The Vermont Democrat told reporters the outburst may end up helping Obama. "It demonstrates what he is facing," Leahy said.

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