Instead of a debate on the merits of President Obama's health care proposals or congressional Democrats' failure to produce a bill that has any chance of bipartisan support, we've been diverted this week by a disgraceful sideshow. Thanks to pundits and bloggers and political opportunists of all stripes, Rep. Joe Wilson's (R-S.C.) cry "You lie" became the shot heard 'round the world. Now, we have the unpleasant spectacle of the president's most fawning supporters suggesting anyone who opposes his policies must be racist, while the president's opponents defend discourtesy as a badge of honor.
Let's take a deep breath and go back to what actually happened in the House chamber when the president addressed a joint session of Congress to promote health care reform. Ironically, President Obama had just finished declaring that critics were telling lies about his health care proposals. He referred to "bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any costs," and then said that the best example was "prominent politicians" who had accused the administration of planning to "set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens." He then went on to say that the claim was "a lie, plain and simple."
I can't remember the last president who called his opponents liars -- at least to their faces. And if Joe Wilson hadn't forgotten he was on the floor of the House of Representatives, not a schoolyard or bar, we might actually have seen criticism of the president for his over-the-top rhetoric, not to mention a focus on the misstatements, exaggerations, and downright dishonesty of much of what the president said that night. Instead, we're all talking about Joe Wilson and whether he's a racist or a hero. In my book, he's neither.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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