Rapping Joe's Knuckles

By Maureen Dowd, New York Times - September 16, 2009


Maureen Dowd

Joe Wilson, congressman, argued that Joe Wilson, chucklehead, should not be formally rebuked.

It would be a waste of time, he asserted on the House floor where, six days earlier, he had committed his conduct most unbecoming.

Other Republicans stepped up to the microphone to agree that this was a distraction from the important things they could be doing. (Like stepping up their effort to kill President Obama’s attempt to provide health care for the have-nots in society?)

“When we are done here today,” said the man who accused the president of lying, “we will not have taken any steps to improve the country.”

Actually, Wilson is dead wrong again. When House Democrats, and a handful of Republicans, reprimanded the congressman on Tuesday evening for refusing to apologize to his colleagues for breaking the rules, it was quite a wonderful way to improve America.

It was a rare triumph for civility in a country that seems to have lost all sense of it — from music arenas to tennis courts to political gatherings to hallowed halls — and a ratification of an institution that has relied on strict codes of conduct for two centuries to prevent a breakdown of order.

“When you look at the various incidents of misbehavior all across the spectrum,” Representative James Clyburn, the highest ranking black lawmaker in Congress who had pushed for the reprimand, told me afterward, “the one place we ought to be able to say that such conduct is not acceptable and just cannot be tolerated is in America’s classroom, as I call Congress. Students are looking at us, and they ought not to be able to ever feel that such bad behavior would be condoned.”

It was a powerful showdown between two congressmen from South Carolina, one black, one white; one Democrat, one Republican.

“Joe Wilson has worked very hard to cultivate a sort of choir-boy image, but I think that most people realize that there’s something else going on with him,” Clyburn said.

The two started off on friendly terms long ago when Clyburn was on the board of a national bank and Wilson was on the bank’s local board in West Columbia.

“Frankly,” Clyburn told me, “I supported him financially the first time he ran for office.”

Over the years, Clyburn tried to “look past” things that bothered him — Wilson’s “membership in some groups that call into question his feelings about his whole notion of white supremacy” and his defense of the Confederate flag flying above the Columbia, S.C., Statehouse.

Clyburn said he was “bothered a great deal” by the “real nasty things” Wilson said about the black woman who turned out to be Strom Thurmond’s daughter.

In August, Clyburn picked up a newspaper to see that Wilson was holding his first town hall meeting in Clyburn’s district, three minutes from his house, at the high school Clyburn’s children went to — an “in your face” breach of Congressional protocol.

“He was being confrontational and combative,” Clyburn said. “And Wednesday night was just bringing his town hall meeting antics to the floor of the House of Representatives.”

The black members of Congress were fed up, after a long, hot summer of sulfurous attitudes toward the first black president. Clyburn privately pressed Wilson three times last Thursday to apologize for breaking the rules — Wilson’s own wife asked him who the “nut” was who was hollering at the president — but the Republican was getting chesty with his unlikely new role as king of the rowdies.

He was regarded as a hero at the anti-Obama rally in Washington last weekend that featured such classy placards as, with a picture of a lion, “The Zoo has an African and the White House has a Lyin’ African;” “Bury Obamacare with Kennedy;” “We came unarmed (this time)” and “ ‘Cap’ Congress and ‘Trade’ Obama back to Kenya!”

A camera also caught Wilson in Washington signing for a fan a picture of himself confronting the president, and he has raised $2 million in the last week.

Former President Jimmy Carter weighed in with Brian Williams of NBC News on Tuesday: “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man.” He said he felt that was true in the South and elsewhere.

Clyburn won the manners round, but Wilson was back Tuesday night tweeting his rude new fans, people who, as the minority leader, John Boehner, put it, are “scared to death that the country that they grew up in is not going to be the country that their kids and grandkids grew up in.”

It’s not. That country is gone. And in terms of biases that have faded, that’s a good thing. But partly due to the Internet, the standards of behavior in this new country are terrible.

If Beaver and Wally were around today, they’d likely be writing snarky, revealing blogs about June and Ward.

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