The XX Factor

What’s So Bad About Calling the President a Liar?

Everyone seems to agree that it was bad for South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson to yell “You lie!” at the president last night during the health care speech. Gail Collins calls it “not a good plan,” New York Democrat Joseph Crowley called it “outrageous,” and Rahm Emanuel said: “No president has ever been treated like that. Ever.” That’s when I started to get suspicious. Rahm Emanuael? The man known to fit three “fucks” in a sentence, outraged by “lie”? The president himself said his opponents “lie” not seconds before, and it’s much more unusual for a president to use that word than for some back-bench congressman. Outside of that chamber the health care debate has been anything but civil, so why pretend otherwise?

Wilson has of course already apologized, saying, “my emotions got the better of me.” The president wasn’t available to take the call so he had to apologize to Emanuel instead, which must have hurt. My only disappointment is that this was a spontaneous outburst instead of a genuine, deliberate heckle. One of the great pleasures of seeing Obama give an official speech is that you can imagine you’re in London, watching the British parliament, where spirited and sometimes nasty debate might takes place instead of the tedious “civility” that governs these phony American sessions. When I heard that outburst last night I thought, finally, we’ve arrived.

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.