Mr. Wilson’s War – On Class

CaningSumnerJoe Wilson is not uncivil. There, I said it. While this statement is out of step with the barrage of coverage on civility in the past 24 hours, it actually offers a clarification of that most tricky of arenas for the practice of civil behavior; our government.

Civility, in its most basic form, is a set of boundaries and constraints that an individual or community agrees to in order to function as a unified whole. These boundaries and constraints are enforced through culture, tradition, protocol and laws, both written and unwritten. Now, the Congress is a Pantheon of protocol. The written rules of procedure are staggeringly complex and decidedly arcane. These boundaries exist for a very specific purpose. Our founding fathers and subsequent generations intuitively understood that a group of Type A personalities whose vocation was elected office would never get anything accomplished (or decidedly less than they do now) if there weren’t some type of controls in place.

While it may seem strange to many Americans, Mr. Wilson’s outburst was completely within the established and agreed upon border lines of the protocols of the Senate and House.

Was it boorish? Yes.
Rude? Yes.
Low class? Yes.
Disrespectful? Yes.
Uncivil? No.

Mr. Wilson operated within constraints of his community. In fact, Mr. Wilson perfected the example of the behaviors expected of a US Congressman when he immediately wrote a letter of apology, called the President to apologize and will most likely receive some form of rebuke from his own party and the House as well.

By comparison, Vice-President Cheney’s behaviors have been blatantly uncivil. In Mr. Cheney’s case he, with malice and intention, broke a 230 year tradition of former Executive branch officials. Mr. Cheney has repeatedly denigrated President Obama’s administration, and has made a decision that 230 years of boundaries and constraints do not apply to him.

Mr. Wilson made an embarrassing error, but quickly sought forgiveness. President Obama didn’t hesitate a moment to personally accept that apology. Mr. Cheney’s actions are completely without repentance. He is breaking the long standing expectations of his office, with no apologies. Unrepentant bad behavior is an act of incivility.

I will tend to avoid writing about politics in the future, because it is simply too easy of a target. But, this event is certainly of the type that can’t be ignored when civility is a subject that I am passionate about. As I close today’s entry though, I think it is important to mention that the feigned and faked horror on both sides of the aisle is laughable. As I mentioned earlier, the US House and Senate are truly a special case in American culture. Even with the rules and protocols, the chambers of our Congress are not meant to be tread by the weak of heart and short of constitution. “You lie” pales in comparison to the large number of certifiably uncivil acts that have occurred within those chambers. To put things in perspective, consider the case of Congressman Brooks and Senator Sumner. On May 22, 1865 Mr. Preston Brooks entered the Senate chamber and walked up behind Senator Charles Sumner. Mr. Brooks proceeded to beat Mr. Sumner savagely with a cane. Senator Sumner took years to recover and many modern historians believe he suffered brain damage from the attack.

Sticks and stones will break those bones, but words will never hurt within the walls of our Capitol building. Words, even when inappropriately interjected during a Presidential speech, are still considered part of the civil discourse within that community.

5 Responses to Mr. Wilson’s War – On Class

  1. Tracy Bellar says:

    Was Joe Wilson’s reaction selfless? Is this the reason for his ability to retain civility? He was not thinking “I”. He had a true concern for his voters and the people of this country. Granted his timing was poor, but when does a reaction and public outburst become acceptable? At what point does standing up for what you feel is right in a public forum, out of turn, become acceptable? When is it not rude? Cheney should never have taken a public position, but does his personality and incivility have a place in his previous world of the CIA? Is it something that can be embraced at one time and condemned the next?

    • rwbird says:

      Mr. Bellar,

      I think your questions are thought provoking and relevant. They also are a confirmation and illustration of why I will rarely write about civility in the realm of politics. The problem with the subject matter is that politics, by its very nature, is the practice of debate and disagreement with the ultimate resolution hopefully being a representative compromise of two or more parties’ demands or beliefs. Politics are conflict.

      Readers expect, and many times demand, that commentators on a political subject must articulate what their political bias and affiliations are. Politics, among all social interactions, is one of the few and possibly only activities where readers and commentators feel obligated to justify or rationalize the behaviors of the individuals, parties or organizations that support their particular viewpoint. I take quite the opposite position when writing and speaking about civility. My commentary is based on the principle that people. organizations and communities either are, or are not, acting in a civil manner. Justifying incivility is a dangerous and slippery slope.

      Many people felt Bull Connor’s behaviors were justified as he declared war on the civil rights of other human beings. History confirms that Mr. Connor was both uncivil and wrong and his example should cause us to pause when thinking about our civility when we are “standing up for what you feel is right in a public forum”. Bull Connor definitely thought he was right.

      Again, Mr. Wilson’s behavior was in very bad form. The terms “selfless” and “politician” however, should rarely be used in the same sentence. Mr. Wilson’s outburst was highly self-serving, as it most certainly did not represent the beliefs of all of the voters he represents in his electoral district. He was not, however, uncivil in the context of the norms of behavior for the Congress. Cokie Roberts of NPR stated on 9/10/09 that “you lie” was certainly not the worst thing that has ever been shouted at a President or shared amongst members of Congress in our great Capitol.

      Regardless of anyone’s personal political beliefs, Mr. Cheney’s incivilities are troubling. Not because of his political ideology, but because of his blatant disregard for a set of norms and expectations that have been one of the cornerstones of the success of the United States. Mr. Cheney has determined that these rules simply do not apply to him. And yet, two titans amongst our founding fathers – Thomas Jefferson and John Adams – were on complete opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. They were the originators of the model of behavior expected of Presidents and Vice-Presidents going forward. John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson were sworn, and hateful, enemies. They honored the traditions established by their Executive forebears. Even up to the modern day, Vice-President Richard Nixon abhorred the Kennedy family. And yet, he did not engage in the uncivil behavior of criticizing the elected President.

      Mr. Cheney is not being uncivil to change a badly flawed system. The precedent he is breaking has been the key to the peaceful transition of power in this country since George Washington left office. Mr. Cheney is being uncivil because he believes that his ideology justifies such bad behavior. Mr. Cheney stands in the shadow of historical giants, not separate from them.

      I am not a political commentator. I believe that incivility cannot be rationalized or justified.

  2. Paul D Allen says:

    “But instead of embracing the bipartisan national consensus to improve our environment, the Bush administration has chosen to serve the special interests instead of the public interests and to subsidize the obsolete, failed approaches of the past instead of the exciting new solutions of the future.”
    -Al Gore April 2002 (Berkeley Daily Planet)

    Ten days after criticizing President Bush’s handling of Iraq, Al Gore offered a scathing assessment today of Mr. Bush’s stewardship of the American economy. Mr. Gore said Mr. Bush’s policies had created a “crisis of confidence in U.S. economic leadership throughout the world.” (New York Times)
    -Al Gore October 2002

    “I understand his concern about people knowing exactly what he read in the privacy of the Oval Office, and there is a legitimate reason for treating such memos to the president with care. But that concern has to be balanced against the national interest in improving the way America deals with such information. And the apparently chaotic procedures that were used to handle the forged nuclear documents from Niger certainly show evidence that there is room for improvement in the way the White House is dealing with intelligence memos. Along with other members of the previous administration, I certainly want the commission to have access to any and all documents sent to the White House while we were there that have any bearing on this issue. And President Bush should let the commission see the ones that he read too.”
    -Al Gore August 2003 (New York News)

    ormer Vice President Al Gore sharply criticized President George W. Bush today, saying that the National Security Agency surveillance program disclosed last month “virtually compels the conclusion that the President of the United States has been breaking the law repeatedly and persistently.”

    “A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government,” Gore said. “Our Founding Fathers were adamant that they had established a government of laws and not men.” (
    -Al Gore January 2006

  3. rwbird says:

    Mr. Allen,

    Your references are well made, and I can understand your implication that Vice-President Gore broke precedent. While I may not agree with your interpretation, I am not pursuing political commentary as a pathway to increasing understanding about civility and the importance of it in society.

    Granting your interpretation that Mr. Gore “broke the seal” as it were, then we might be inclined to say that Mr. Cheney’s subsequent behavior is now civil. I’ll address that with an important piece of wisdom my mother shared with me long ago – “two wrongs do not make a right”.

    Mr. Gore would be guilty of incivility as well, as opposed to absolving Mr. Cheney of his incivility. If the precedent was now officially “unhonored”, we’d see op ed criticisms in bulk by Presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush.

    Again, an excellent call-out on your part. Many thanks.

  4. Tracy Bellar says:

    It seems to me that Health care and politics created the outburst and the passionate feelings on both sides. A true Bipartison answer to the health issue where both sides give and take might help the passionate feelings subside. Every time health care comes into the political arena it is always amps up the anger and pushes people to opposite sides of the issue. It is always Obamas plan, Bush’s plan, Hillarys plan, Clintons health plan which causes tention. I felt that the outburst was more disrespectful to the office of the President than anything. Regardless of who the president happens to be both sides have a forum to rebut what was said.
    I expect more from an elected official. But, the man is passionate and that seems to be rare these days.

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