The First Heckler

Is Obama the first president to get heckled during an address to Congress?

Joe Wilson. Click image to expand.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.

A Republican representative from South Carolina, Joe Wilson, heckled President Obama during his speech to Congress Wednesday night. In response to Obama’s statement that the proposed health care bill would not cover illegal immigrants, Wilson shouted, “You lie!” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said, “I have never in my 29 years heard an outburst of that nature with reference to a president of the United States speaking as a guest of the House and Senate,” while White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said, “No president has ever been treated like that. Ever.” Is Obama really the first president to get heckled during an address to Congress?

It depends on what you mean by heckle. Members of Congress frequently express their disapproval audibly during a presidential speech. When Bill Clinton outlined his health care plan in 1993, for example, some Republicans snickered, shook their heads, made faces, and even shouted “no.” And when George W. Bush claimed in his 2005 State of the Union that Social Security will be “exhausted and bankrupt by 2042,” Democrats responded with boos. (At the time, several political talk-show hosts, including Ted Koppel of ABC, claimed such booing was unprecedented.) But last night may be the first time a congressman went beyond communal muttering—and interrupted the president with a loud and denigrating retort.

In the United Kingdom, prime ministers expect less decorum from representatives. Every Wednesday while the House of Commons is in session, the prime minister spends half an hour answering questions—and enduring boos and snide remarks—from Members of Parliament. Harold Wilson, Labour’s prime minister from 1964 to ‘70, and again from ‘74 to ‘76, is remembered as a particularly able heckler-handler. During a speech on public expenditure, a rowdy MP shouted, “What about Vietnam?” The following back-and-forth ensued:

“The government has no plans to increase public expenditure in Vietnam.””Rubbish!””I’ll come to your special interest in a minute, sir.”

Even a raucous British MP, however, would think twice before accusing the prime minister, or another parliamentarian, of lying. Traditionally, members are expected to avoid insulting or abusive language, specifically charges of lying or being drunk. Over the years, speakers (their Nancy Pelosis) have objected to the words blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, stoolpigeon, and traitor, among others. If a speaker deems a word or phrase “unparliamentary,” he will ask the member to formally withdraw it. (For more information on etiquette in the House of Commons, see this factsheet [PDF].)

Although Americans now expect the president to address Congress in person, not all commanders-in-chief have done so. George Washington and John Adams both delivered spoken State of the Union addresses, but Thomas Jefferson found the practice too monarchic and decided to write his instead. For the next 112 years, his successors followed suit. Woodrow Wilson rebooted the practice of spoken addresses to Congress in 1913.

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Explainer thanks Richard Ellis of Willamette University and Betty Koed of the Senate Historical Office.