Sept. 10, 2009 — -- 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."
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.
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.
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.