Civility lacking on the right during Obama's speech

Thursday, September 10, 2009 | 1:56 p.m. CDT; updated 2:40 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 10, 2009

I watched President Obama’s speech Wednesday night hoping to learn something about health care reform. I came away reminded of something important and ugly about America.

It was a fine speech, I thought. Mr. Obama not only clarified his position and reclaimed the momentum in the continuing debate, but he advocated and demonstrated the virtues of civil discourse. He was, it seemed to me, forceful and respectful.

Joe Wilson gave the Republican response. No, not the official response;hat came from a Louisiana representative named Boustany. Rep. Wilson provided the real Republican response, not only to the issue at hand but to Mr. Obama himself.

When he shouted, “You lie!” in answer to Mr. Obama’s demonstrably truthful assertion that illegal immigrants will continue to be excluded from insurance coverage, he illustrated the unreasoning distrust and even hatred that a disturbing number of his fellow conservatives clearly feel toward Mr. Obama and all his works.

(As a public service, I pause here to share what I learned in a quick Google search for Rep. Wilson. In the first place, Joe isn’t his real name. That’s Addison Graves Wilson Sr. He’s 62, a native South Carolinian, a real estate lawyer, a Presbyterian and the father of four. He has represented the 2nd Congressional District of South Carolina since 2001.)

Rep. Wilson called the White House to apologize for his outburst. He also issued a written apology. I’m guessing, though, that the shout was more sincere. It certainly fit the pattern he set in 2002 when he called another Congressman “viscerally anti-American” for having had the temerity to point out that the United States had supplied weapons to Saddam Hussein.

The most important thing about Rep. Wilson’s rudeness, and the hissing and booing from other Republicans you could hear at other points in Mr. Obama’s speech, was how closely it all fits into what the late Richard Hofstadter once called “the paranoid style in American politics.” That was the title of a famous essay Professor Hofstadter published 45 years ago.

There has always been a lunatic fringe, and occasionally the lunacy has infected the main stream of political argument. See, for example, the virulent attacks by the right on Franklin Roosevelt. Paranoia isn’t a right-wing disease, but in this country the right has usually been equipped with the bigger megaphones.

What’s new and dangerous in what we’re seeing these days is race. The fact that we have a black president seems deeply disturbing to a lot of people. A quarter of respondents to a recent national poll even refused to accept that Mr. Obama was born in this country. Of those, self-described conservatives outnumbered liberals by 5 to 1. The evidence of racism and paranoia showed up, too, in the orchestrated outrage at last month’s town halls on health care.

Can anything else explain the monkey caricatures and hopelessly confused signs depicting Mr. Obama as Hitler while calling him a Communist?

Some in the commentariat are saying Mr. Obama has failed in his quest for political civility. I’d say instead that the failure – or, more accurately, the refusal – has been and continues to be on the other side.

It’s pretty clear that Mr. Obama isn’t going to get much, if any, Republican support for health care reform. What we heard Wednesday night suggests that common courtesy also will continue to be in short supply.

Mr. Obama quoted Ted Kennedy on the importance of health care to our national character. His paranoid enemies besmirch that character.


George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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Allan Sharrock September 10, 2009 | 7:58 p.m.

If you are going to rant about the Republicans you should do your homework and see if the other side has ever done it also.

But hey what do I know about journalism.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 10, 2009 | 8:31 p.m.

("Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) speaking on the House floor: Now weve moved into the realm of gangster government. We have gangster government when the Federal Government has set up a new cartel and private businesses now have to go begging with their hand out to their local, hopefully well politically connected Congressman or their Senator so they can buy a peace offering for that local business. Is that the kind of country we are going to have in the future?")

(Report Comment)
Colin Bowers September 11, 2009 | 3:07 a.m.

I think this is a very intelligent article. Kudos Mr. Kennedy. You have got it right on the button. Mr. Sherrock, where do you get the idea that it's a 'rant' on Republicans? Are we reading the same article?? He called out one Republican for a really disrespectful, inaccurate heckle at a totally inappropriate time. I think the article reads more like a centrist (or even pro-Republican) one that talks some sense, and attempts objectivity.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 11, 2009 | 4:35 a.m.

George Kennedy great article and keep up the good work.

(Report Comment)
tina fey September 11, 2009 | 7:38 a.m.

I felt a thrill running up my leg when this comment was made. I never feel that thrill running up my leg when George Kennedy writes glowingly about liberals like Obama and rants incessantly against conservatives like Bush et al. I can never find civility in George Kennedy's tone. Why does the University of Missouri support liberal bias in media? Are all liberal Missourians angry and frustrated like Mr. Kennedy?

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock September 11, 2009 | 8:48 a.m.

"and the hissing and booing from other Republicans you could hear at other points in Mr. Obama’s speech, was how closely it all fits into what the late Richard Hofstadter once called “the paranoid style in American politics.”
"There has always been a lunatic fringe"

Now I am not saying he is directing calling Republicans lunatics but he is a journalist and knows how to write in such a manner to persuade and put thoughts into the readers indirectly.

(Report Comment)
Linda Tremaine September 11, 2009 | 2:55 p.m.

Sounded like a good well-reasoned article to me. Smacks of True Professionalism I'd say!

Its sad looking the current hysterical discourse currently taking place throughout the country. I will admit that sometimes I get a touch of that myself when I listen to the angry venom spewing from the likes Faux Snooze right wing pundits and Rush Limburger etc.

Nor was Obama my first choice for president. I'm still kind of cool on him. Like many folks, I didn't like watching those bailouts to industry fat cats being bungled.

But I don't show up at town hall meetings insisting on behaving like an out of control crazy hooligan!

I definitely would like to see the day that reason and common sense reigns supreme.

Good start George. Keep up the great work. Thanks.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 11, 2009 | 3:01 p.m.

How weird can this get?
I just heard Jesse Jackson on MSNBC accuse the Wilson-types as being the same people who discuss politics in the back rooms explaining that slavery was ordained by God.

(Report Comment)
Brian Nitsllaw September 14, 2009 | 8:18 a.m.

Please refer to my response here on where I see Middle America and racism:

(Report Comment)
ann fluer September 18, 2009 | 11:01 a.m.

Perhaps the time, place, and method were inappropriate, but apparently there was some truth to Joe Wilson's comment
no, I don't hate the press or Obama, but I found out during the election that you hate women, and then blue collar workers, and now you're attacking a little old man, so you must not like the elderly either. I guess I'm out on 3 strikes.

(Report Comment)

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