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'YOU LIE!' NEW LOW OR NEW STANDARD?

Officials' dismay at the now famed outburst was uniform. The cyberspace reaction, not so.

Two words from one guy.

"You lie!"

That was the verbal spitball launched from the back of the class by Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina. The remark came during President Barack Obama's health care speech Wednesday night. People thought about it and talked about it and blogged about it all day Thursday. It was the top story on Google News. It was the top topic on Twitter.

Wilson said in a statement that his outburst, with red face and finger jab, was "inappropriate and regrettable," and that he was sorry for his "lack of civility."

Let's linger on that last part. Lack of civility.

Is this where we've arrived? Is this what political discourse has become, not too far from yuh-huh, nuh-uh, nanny-nanny-boo-boo? What this was, perhaps, was a status update on the state of debate in this country.

"I think it's getting worse and worse," Guy Burgess said.

He should know. He heads up the Conflict Information Consortium at the University of Colorado. He once wrote a paper titled The Meaning of Civility.

"It's gotten to the point," he said, "where it's a real threat to our ability to address our political issues."

"It's almost like the Middle East, where each group carries grievances forever," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"Maybe it's more Mars and Venus," he said. "But it's not just men and women, it's Republicans and Democrats, and they don't speak the same language anymore."

In presidential addresses to Congress, a certain amount of audible or visible disagreement is accepted, understood as part of the political theater. Giggles, guffaws, moans and groans are not at all uncommon, said Raymond Smock, a former House historian.

That goes both ways.

In 1993, when Democrat Bill Clinton was president, he spoke to Congress about his health care plan, and there were Republican snickers, skeptical faces and shakes of the head.

In 2005, during a speech by Republican George Bush, Democrats booed.

Of late, though, the dissent around America has been of a different, more strident, less constructive sort. Debate devolved into mostly yelling and screaming at town hall health care gatherings this summer. A strategy memo circulated by the Web site Tea Party Patriots had this suggestion: "Stand up and shout."

Maybe Obama knew what was coming. The text of his speech was released before Wednesday night.

One line: When "we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter, we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves."

Another line: "The time for bickering is over."

Or ... not.

During his speech, some Republicans laughed at times, some booed, some grumbled - all part of the show- and Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas had at the ready some handmade signs: WHAT PLAN? WHAT BILL?

Enter Joe Wilson.

The 62-year-old Charleston-born father of four Eagle Scouts got his start in politics as an aide to longtime South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. Wilson spent 17 years as a state senator. He has been in Congress since 2001. His CliffsNotes stance: small government, big military, family values.

Wilson said what he said in response to Obama saying no federal funding would be used to provide insurance for immigrants in the country illegally. The Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact.com says the president is telling the truth.

Now, over in England, in the House of Commons, hollering and rabble-rousing are considered practically routine, but parliamentary customs also have limits: no "insulting, coarse or abusive language," and no "charges of lying."

"It's the start of a slippery slope if you allow someone to call someone else a liar," Greg Knight, a British lawmaker, told Bloomberg News on Thursday.

Here in America, said Smock, the former House historian, "I think it is unprecedented for a member to yell at the president he's a liar."

Heads turned. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stared Wilson down. First lady Michelle Obama shook her head. So did Vice President Joe Biden.

The reaction in Washington: This was embarrassing, demeaning, unacceptable. That came from Republicans, too. Obama's presidential opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, called it "totally disrespectful." Said California Rep. David Dreier: "I cringed."

"No president has ever been treated like that," White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told reporters. "Ever."

The public's reaction, though, judging from the chatter on cable TV and talk radio and on comments on blogs and at the bottoms of stories on newspaper Web sites, reflected the wide divide that prompted Wilson's blurt in the first place.

On the one side: He's a boor. He's a buffoon. A new low. These were the people who by Thursday afternoon had donated almost half a million dollars to the campaign coffers of Wilson's Democratic opponent in South Carolina.

On the other: He's brave and he's bold and please run for president because I'll so vote for you. The only thing Wilson did wrong, that group said, was apologize.

Times staff writer Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

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