In Lawmaker’s Outburst, a Rare Breach of Protocol
Doug Mills/The New York Times
Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina received criticism for yelling, “You lie!” at the president. More Photos >
WASHINGTON — It was a rare breach of the protocol that governs ritualistic events in the Capitol.
In an angry and very audible outburst, Representative Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, interrupted President Obama’s speech Wednesday night with a shout of “You lie!”
Though he later apologized, his eruption — in response to Mr. Obama’s statement that Democratic health proposals would not cover illegal immigrants — stunned members of both parties in the House chamber.
Democrats said it showed lack of respect for the office of the presidency and was reminiscent of Republican disruptions at recent public forums on health care.
“I was embarrassed for the chamber and a Congress I love,” Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “It demeaned the institution.”
He said that he had not spoken to President Obama since the speech. But, “knowing the president, I’m sure he accepted the apology,” The Associated Press reported.
After the speech, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff who sat a few rows in front of Mr. Wilson, said he immediately approached senior Republican lawmakers to encourage them to identify the heckler and urge him to issue an apology quickly.
“No president has ever been treated like that. Ever,” Mr. Emanuel said.
Other Democrats said they did not want to dwell on the outburst or allow it to overshadow what they saw as an effective address by the president. But they also said it bolstered their contention that some Republicans were not interested in constructive dialogue, and they noted that Democratic plans specifically barred coverage for illegal immigrants.
Republicans also said the heckling was out of line. “I think we ought to treat the president with respect,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, “and anything other than that is not appropriate.”
And the House Republican whip, Eric I. Cantor of Virginia, told ABC on Thursday: “Obviously, the president of the United States is always welcome on Capitol Hill. He deserves respect and decorum.” He said that Mr. Wilson’s apology “was the appropriate thing to do.”
But Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the House Democratic leader, said Thursday he considered Mr. Wilson’s apology insufficient. “I think, frankly, he ought to apologize to the House as well,” he told MSNBC.
Mr. Wilson seemed rattled in the wake of his comment, and quickly left the chamber at the end of the speech.
His office later issued an apology, saying: “This evening I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the president’s remarks regarding the coverage of illegal immigrants in the health care bill. While I disagree with the president’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility.”
Mr. Wilson also phoned the White House and reached Mr. Emanuel, who accepted an apology on behalf of the president.
Democratic campaign officials said that in the first eight hours after Mr. Wilson’s outburst gained attention, his potential Democratic opponent, Rob Miller, received nearly 3,000 individual campaign contributions totaling about $100,000. At the same time, some Republican officials and party allies pushed back, saying too much was being made of the incident and that past presidents had been treated roughly during Congressional addresses.
Critical body language and murmurs of disapproval are typical at presidential addresses and part of the political theater. But members of both parties were trying to recollect such a pointed attack from an individual lawmaker at a presidential address and noted that a similar remark could draw a formal reprimand if delivered at a routine session of the House.
When President Clinton addressed Congress in 1993 to push his health care plan, “both sides of the aisle received the President warmly,” according to a report in The New York Times at the time.
“But when he began talking about raising taxes on tobacco to pay for the plan, or the need to cut Medicare and Medicaid, many on the Republican side of the aisle began snickering, shaking their heads skeptically and making faces at each other,” the article said.