I once knew U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson of Columbia, S.C.
Joe was a senior at Washington and Lee University when I was a freshman. He was also my Sigma Nu fraternity brother.
He wore a coat and tie to class, as most of us still did. He had a courtly, soft-spoken manner that complemented his syrupy South Carolina accent. He was an admirer of Strom Thurmond. I'm pretty sure he had a signed photograph of the Dixiecrat senator, for whom he later went to work. His political path took Joe through the state Senate and later to Congress.
Younger and more dissolute, I didn't spend much time with Joe. I did seek advice from him once about running for a campus political office. He was a politico then, president of the Conservatives Club. He offered some useful ideas that I was too lazy to follow. I was beaten soundly. I had more votes the following year as a joke write-in candidate after pals plastered my leftover campaign signs all over campus as a prank.
I've followed his career from afar intermittently. But then there he was again last week — the agitated congressman who shouted “You lie” at President Obama during a nationally televised address. (Teneo, Brother Joe. Still believe that old frat oath about walking in the “way of honor?”)
It emerged that Joe had established a reputation for intemperate behavior. He called down a congressional colleague as un-American for differing on the war. He blasted Thurmond's black daughter for publicly announcing her paternity. He was one of a handful of diehards who resisted removal of the Confederate flag from a place of honor over the South Carolina capitol. And on goes the dreary resume of a retrograde son of Dixie.
Wilson apologized half-heartedly for his outburst, but soon began a defiant round of media appearances to claim he was right to call out the president. Wilson was wrong, of course. Nitpickers argued that pending legislation contains inadequate safeguards to be sure a terminally ill illegal alien never gets a dime of health care coverage. But the legislation still explicitly prohibits it, just as the president truthfully said it did.
The furor over Wilson prompted a boastful Republican defense that his outburst was a victory. See, it made Wilson the story, not Obama's health legislation. The alibiers are wrong. Nobody knows this better than Republicans, proven masters at creating powerful political symbols from small, easily understood events. Willie Horton, anyone?
Polls in Wilson's own district showed even Republicans disapproved of his outburst. They also showed that he had created a favorable backlash for the president.
Joe Wilson has become the face of the Republican Party — an angry, contorted face. The people see it. Republicans oppose the president and health care legislation no matter what. Obama cannot make enough concessions — and he's made many — to satisfy them.
Republicans Just Say No. That is not an appealing argument to the tens of millions with skimpy, but expensive, health coverage or, worse, no health coverage at all. They want action.
The Republicans don't stand for ideas. They stand for George Wallace-style defiance. Thanks to Brother Joe, the party now has a visible living symbol. He's an angry, 62-year-old Southern white man and a defender of the Southern way of life, circa 1862.
You want that as the face of your political party? You can have him.