Channeling Your Inner Brit

by Joshua Tucker on September 9, 2009 · 8 comments

in General Politics

So with it now all but confirmed that SC Republican Rep. Joe Wilson was the one who called out Lie! during President Obama’s speech tonight, a couple questions for all you presidency scholars out there. Is this sort of thing unique in recent years? When was the last time someone essentially yelled at the president during an address to Congress? How about historically – did this sort of thing go on more often earlier in our nation’s history?


Michael Poole September 10, 2009 at 7:12 am

According to Media Matters, this happened in both 2005 and 1993, although in those cases the heckling was more widespread.

Andrew Rudalevige September 10, 2009 at 10:48 am

I’d have to look, but my best guess is that the answer to the question is ‘never.’ In part this is because presidents did not address Congress in person, for a long time – Woodrow Wilson revived the practice in 1913, 100+ years after Jefferson had abandoned it (as too monarchical). So members of Congress, busy as they were caning each other and getting into fistfights, did not have the chance to heckle the president in person, at least not at the Capitol in a formal setting.

It is not clear if (Joe) Wilson violated the formal Rules of the House (had this been a House debate, he clearly would have done.) However, such joint sessions – especially the State of the Union address, but also other policy speeches such as President Bush’s 20 September 2001 address or President Obama’s speech on health care last night – are supposed to serve as an oasis of unity and decorum (even if, like many oases, it turns out to be a mirage).

And you are referred to the Republican guide to “unparliamentary speech” posted by the Rules Committee minority, which states that “A Member should avoid impugning the motives of another Member, the Senate or the President, using offensive language, or uttering words that are otherwise deemed unparliamentary” and notes specifically, in a section of “References to the… Executive Branch,” that

“The precedents of the House allow a wide latitude in criticism of the President, other executive officials, and the government itself. However, it is not permissible to use language that is personally offensive to the President, such as referring to him as a ‘hypocrite’ or a ‘liar.’”

Matthew Shugart September 10, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Clever headline, but I don’t quite get it. Yes, British Question Time can feature brutal give-and-take and heckling. But cries of liar? I don’t know, but I think not. Or a least not without a stern warning (whatever little that might be worth) from the Speaker (who, unlike in the US, actually is an arbiter and not the head of the majority party in the chamber–the latter role is played by the PM himself/herself, of course).

More fundamentally, there just is no parallel between speeches by a president and by a PM. The latter is by definition accountable to parliament, and thus expected to have to face harsh criticism. A president, on the other hand, is essentially giving a Throne Speech, not engaging in a Question Time. It is one-way communication, notwithstanding that it is presented by the head of government, not (merely) the head of state. We would not subject THE CHIEF to such abuses of his/her dignity as questions from mere delegates of the commonfolk–which perhaps builds up the pressure that leads to said delegates from time to time being unable to exercise dignified self-control.

I am not defending the institution of “state of the union” and similar speeches, such as that given last night. In fact, I think it is a “worst of both worlds” practice. I am just pointing out the problem with the analogy.

Shag from Brookline September 10, 2009 at 3:22 pm

Maybe Rep. Wilson did not complete his thought. Perhaps he wanted to say “Liar, liar, pants on fire ….” but remembered that the First Amendment speech clause would not protect falsely yelling fire in a crowded theatre – or joint session of Congress.

Simon Jackman September 10, 2009 at 6:19 pm

Matthew Shugart is right. And in the Australian parliament I would think it very rare for the Governor-General’s speech to be subject to interjections. Speeches rolling out a big policy proposal by the PM or a Minister would be another matter entirely. But the comparison with a Westimister-style (Canberra-style!) Question Time is really a big stretch.

Matthew Shugart September 10, 2009 at 10:01 pm

The thread at Fruits & Votes now has several comparative comments, including on Australia, Canada, and Germany (and some with actual research into incidence of “liar”!)

Joshua Tucker September 11, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Ok, ok, you guys are right. I was just trying to be clever with the title, and not implying that the analogy holds perfectly. I will say, in my defense, that when I heard the grumbling at first (before the actual “liar” call), the first thing I thought of was watching Question Time in England. But thanks for the clarification – we at The Monkey Cage certainly do not want to be spreading false accusations regarding the civility of MPs on the other side of either the Atlantic or the Pacific!

Great catch on Andy’s part as well, about the specific admonition against calling the president a _liar_.

El September 15, 2009 at 12:26 pm

How on earth did the Revolution produce a system where the President is treated as so much more god-like than the Queen?

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