Substantive policy aside, the two biggest highlights from President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform speech last night came within seconds of each other, and both involved the utterance of the “L” word. Of course, I’m talking about the word “lie.”
The first instance came from the President himself, in refuting one of the must absurdly false allegations being lobbed by opponents of reform, and his bluntness was welcome:
“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 by prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Now, such a charge would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple.”
By “prominent politicians” President Obama was likely referring to Sarah Palin amongst others, and by “lie” he was accusing them of making false statements with the deliberate intent to deceive. “Lie” is a strong word, and one that should not be bandied about lightly by a person of such stature as the President of the United States, but in this instance its usage was both apt and appropriate.
No doubt Palin is not the most informed politician ever to strut across the national stage, but when she repeats the same false statement over and over again, even after being repeatedly and thoroughly fact-checked, refuted and rebutted, it is more than fair to accuse her of lying. And in a policy debate of such import as that in which we are now engaged, mere gainsaying is not sufficient; it was absolutely crucial for the President to blow up this particularly pernicious lie, and in no uncertain words.
The truth is, people lie. The ability to lie marks a recognizable milestone in every toddler’s cognitive development, and this talent to consciously deceive is one of the uniquely human traits that separates us from most of the rest of the animal kingdom. Indeed, if lying were not such a basic element of everday human interaction, its prohibition would not be the most frequently violated of the Ten Commandments.
And yet, despite the abstract cliche of “lying politicians,” you will almost never read the “L” word printed in the polite pages of our family newspapers. Oh, they’ll fact-check and refute the claims of politicians, they’ll highlight disputes, and even occasionally label statements as clearly false. But they’ll almost never imply intent by accusing a politician or public figure of spreading actual “lies.”
That’s what I found so refreshing… not that President Obama refuted the other side’s lies, but that he bluntly called them as such.
The second use of the word “lie” last night was not nearly as refreshing, but in a way, just as welcome, when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) heckled the President by screaming “You lie!” from the floor of the chambers:
Of course, Wilson’s use of the “L” word couldn’t be more different than the President’s. The death panel allegations are demonstrably false, yet continue to be repeated by prominent politicians well after having been thoroughly disproved; these are indeed lies, plain and simple. But while Wilson might dispute President Obama’s assertion that his proposal would not insure illegal immigrants, “you lie” is not a refutation, and there is absolutely no evidence or consensus that Obama’s statement was false, let alone said with the intent to deceive.
I repeat, the word “lie” should not be bandied about lightly, and yet that’s exactly what Rep. Wilson did.
But of course the biggest difference between the President’s use of the “L” word and that of Rep. Wilson was the context, for the latter came from a US representative, heckling from the floor of the chambers, during a presidential address to a joint session of Congress… a violation of Congressional decorum the likes of which I have never before seen.
Whether Rep. Wilson felt free to interrupt the President because he is a black man, or merely a Democrat, I do not know. But I welcome his show of disrespect because it clearly illustrates the self-destructive naivete of attempting to work with congressional Republicans in an honestly bipartisan fashion, and expecting Republicans to honestly respond in kind. The current class of Republicans do not respect Democrats, do not respect President Obama and do not even respect the Office of the President when occupied by anyone other than their own… which means they do not respect the institution at all. Bipartisanship cannot be imposed unilaterally, and without at least the grudging respect of the party on the other side, would be an ultimately futile and self-defeating pursuit for anything more than rhetorical purposes.
Last night’s speech should be a turning point in the debate on healthcare reform, not just because the President clearly laid out the case for his proposals, but because Rep. Wilson clearly illustrated the petty, hateful and obstructionist nature of the Republican opposition.
No doubt there are many Republicans in Congress who find Rep. Wilson’s behavior dishonorable, but if they wish to avoid being painted with the same broad brush they must do more than merely criticize their colleague or even censure him. They must now prove themselves to be a loyal opposition, or else risk having their own call for bipartisanship demonstrably proven to be a lie.