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.