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Civil Discourse and an End to “Lies!”

A word about Representative Joe Wilson, who shouted out “You lie!” during Barack Obama’s address last night. I don’t like it when members of Congress accuse the president of the United States of lying. It especially shouldn’t be done during a formal speech like last evening. It’s unhelpful to the debate and, I think, unhelpful to Wilson’s own party. He was, in my judgment, right to apologize.

With all that said, it’s worth making several points. The first is that it is President Obama who has accused his critics, on two separate occasions this week (in his Labor Day speech and in his joint session address on Wednesday), of spreading “lies.” It is Obama who has decided to rip into his critics, to impugn their motives, to make them out to be liars rather than misguided or ill-informed.

Second, here is what the President said immediately before Representative Wilson spoke out:

Some of people’s concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost. The best example is the claim, made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Such a charge would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple. There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.

At this point, Wilson shouted out, “You lie!” This was obviously a response to Obama having accused his critics—in this case, clearly Sarah Palin and Charles Grassley—of spreading lies. It’s important to add that whatever one thinks of the “death panel” claim—and I happen to believe it is imprecise and over the top—it is Obama himself who has made more false and misleading claims than perhaps any public figure who is engaged in the health-care debate. He is hardly in a position to lecture others about spreading falsehoods. That point isn’t made nearly often enough.

I would ask, too: Where was the outrage from the Left, from Democrats, and from the mainstream press when Senator Ted Kennedy declared, from the well of the United States Senate, that “before the [Iraq] war, week after week after week after week, we were told lie after lie after lie after lie.” Or when Kennedy accused President Bush of hatching a phony war, “a fraud . . . made up in Texas” to boost his political career. I was in the White House when Kennedy made those charges—and he was not the only prominent Democrat who did. They were incendiary, false, and terribly damaging to public discourse. Yet at the time, Kennedy’s remarks were applauded, or ignored, or taken as evidence that President Bush was responsible for dividing the country.

It’s worth pointing out as well that many more conservatives and Republicans have condemned Representative Wilson’s remarks than liberals and Democrats condemned Senator Kennedy’s remarks.

I have argued before that civility is, as Stephen Carter has written, a precondition for democratic dialogue. There is such a thing as an “etiquette of democracy.” That doesn’t mean political debate shouldn’t be vigorous and passionate; it simply means there are certain lines we should not cross. And because charging someone with lying goes to motivation instead of simply the merits of an argument, I would hope the term would be used less often than it is. That applies to both presidents and members of Congress.



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