Mitch Albom: Two words said at the wrong time, wrong placePublished 10:36am Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Two words. Not even curse words. But the where and the when made those two words significant.
“You lie!” It was screamed from the floor of Congress, by an elected official of the state of South Carolina, and aimed at the president of the United States.
In the history of American politics, no one could recall a similar act. Not with all the fudged truths that have been told by American presidents. Not with George W. Bush and the Iraq war, not with Bill Clinton and his private life, not with Ronald Reagan and Iran-Contra, not with Richard Nixon and Watergate.
Yet somehow last week, during a speech on, of all things, health care, Joe Wilson, a Republican Congressman from South Carolina, was unable to control himself. He yelled those two words loudly enough to be heard in the chamber, on national TV, and around the world.
And in so doing, he lowered the bar of American behavior another few feet.
Never mind that Wilson was incorrect. The president had said that under his health care bill, the benefits would not apply to illegal immigrants – and they would not. The bills before Congress declare that. You could argue that illegal immigrants still could buy insurance or sneak through, but that hardly supports a liar charge, does it?
Never mind that. Never mind that Wilson apologized the next day.
Something bigger was at work.
A society of haters
Hate breeds hate, anger breeds anger, and I have been arguing in this space for years now that the American discourse – fueled by the Internet, talk radio and cable TV – has turned so mean it has nowhere to go but get meaner. Little wonder that immediately after Wilson’s unforgivable outburst, it was being justified by certain Republicans not because it was correct, but because Democrats had been equally insulting to former president Bush.
Hate breeds hate, and there is money and fame in yelling louder and angrier. You don’t get on TV by asking thoughtful questions at a town hall meeting, but you sure can get there if you curse, holler and scream like a captured banshee. Come to think of it, that applies to TV hosts as well.
With everyone yelling, accusing, even making death threats in anonymous posts, is it any surprise that eventually that behavior finds its way into a room with the president? We were abhorred when an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at Bush. We called it barbaric, typical of a country hopelessly behind us on the civility scale.
Where does Wilson rank on that scale?
Clearly near the bottom. But why did he yell those two words? Why was that speech and this president the very moment that a veteran politician like Wilson could no longer control himself?
The right to lead
I have a theory. For all the fawning popularity Obama enjoys in certain circles, he is equally vilified in others. Those who don’t like him truly don’t like him. And there seems to be an element in this country that doesn’t want to accept him as the actual president. From the kooks hollering about his birth certificate to the paranoids insisting he is a closet Muslim, there are people who just don’t want this guy in that office.
The fact that he is “half-black” is not wasted on them, either. Whether they say it or not, their actions speak for themselves. Nobody can use the N-word in public anymore. But they can use socialist, anarchist, alien.
And somehow it’s now acceptable to deem a guy who has been in office barely eight months unfit and unworthy. It’s acceptable to suggest he’s taking us straight to Hell. It’s acceptable to yell “You lie!” at the commander in chief in a place where it has never been yelled before.
Hate breeds hate. Two days ago, I boarded a plane heading for New York City. As we descended over the Manhattan skyline, I realized it was Sept. 11. I thought back to the emotions that followed that day eight years ago, a feeling of unity, a feeling of patriotism, a feeling that no enemy, no matter how evil or determined, could ever tear us apart.
The enemy doesn’t have to. The way we are going, we’ll do it ourselves.
Mitch Albom is a syndicated columnist.