There is a long and treasured tradition in the British House of Commons thatrequires prime ministers to subject themselves to Question Time, a weekly grilling on a wide range of issues from members of the opposite party. These moments can get pretty raucous and very partisan, but rarely does Question Time descend to the sort of declasse behavior seen Wednesday night when Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina accused President Barack Obama of lying during the president's address before a joint session of Congress.
"You lie!" Wilson shouted after Obama said his health care reform proposal would not insure illegal immigrants - which is, in fact, quite true. Wilson's feckless and ignorant outburst only further diminished the tawdry political discourse surrounding a profound public policy issue.
Historically, back-benchers have demonstrated their disagreement with a president on these occasions by quietly remaining seated, their hands sedately folded in their laps, while supporters across the aisle stand to cheer and applaud the chief executive's remarks. That's tradition. It's also good manners.
Wilson violated that unspoken bipartisan code of honor, forgetting perhaps that even during the depths of President George W. Bush's often truth-challenged administration, the president was always accorded due deference for the office he held during his appearances before Congress.
Whatever differences Wilson might have with Obama's health care initiative, he is still a member of Congress. He is not a radio talk show host or a bobbing talking head on cable television. He is still expected to comport himself with a modicum of respect for the elected leader of the nation.
The chastened four-term congressman publicly apologized to the president for his unseemly conduct, and Obama graciously accepted the mea culpa. But the political damage to the congressman may have already been done. Wilson's Democratic opponent, Marine Corps and Iraq war veteran Rob Miller, reportedly raised more than $450,000 by Thursday afternoon. Respect for the presidency is alive and well even if political civility is on life support.
Come the fall of 2010, Rep. Wilson may learn that for want of common civility, a political career might well have been lost.